A primer for readability

Content readability: a primer

Our content was too academic and didn’t resonate with our audience. When we focused on making it more readable for our audience, business grew. What about you? Is your brand deliberately centred on readability?

At its purest, readability is about keeping things simple. It’s about explaining things in as straightforward terms as possible. Content marketers deliver a wealth of ideas and information, but it’s not always presented in the best way. Among the potential problem areas:

  • Length of words and sentences
  • Grammar
  • Structure of content
  • Use of language

Poor readability is a signal that you’re not looking after your audience. It can mean you:

  • Spend a lot of time, money, and other resources producing material that doesn’t fit its purpose
  • Don’t have an engaged audience
  • Lose audience trust, which diminishes customers’ relationship with your business
  • Find your customers taking their business elsewhere
  • Lose revenue

When the Dutch government used readability tools, it found its content’s readability level – C1 – see scale below) was too high for the majority of readers in the Netherlands, who are at a B1 readability level.

CEFR marketing benchmark

Given that most readers could not fully understand the content distributed by the government, it was not only a waste of taxpayer money but it could have hurt people’s well-being if they couldn’t understand the content related to topics such as social security.

When my toddler fell down the stairs, my wife and I were scared. We went into full-on protective mode and searched on Google to see what danger signs to watch for and whether we should take him to the hospital. (He was fine, as it wasn’t a bad fall.) I’d hate to have been reading advice that was too difficult to understand quickly. Especially when panic, stress, and a crying toddler is added to the mix.

Yet, though the average American reads at an eighth-grade level, consumer-focused medical content frequently is too complex for the average reader, as shown in a comparative analysis of patient education materials from 16 medical specialties.

In our business, we collect data on readability and have discovered common issues include:

  • Overuse of long sentences
  • Words with too many syllables
  • Reliance on industry buzzwords and jargon

The good news is these mistakes can be avoided by adopting readability measures as part of your content assessment process.

How to adopt readability, a step-by-step guide

I will take you through nine steps to ensure that your audience is more likely to consume and engage with your content.

1 | Have a customer focus

This is content marketing 101, but it’s the most important aspect. Create content that:

  • Is genuinely useful to the reader
  • Is relatable
  • Answers a question or solves a problem
  • Informs, entertains, or educates  -preferably all three

The relatable point is an essential one. Too much content, particularly on websites, is me-me-me – the brand only talks about itself. Avoid doing that at all costs. For example, turn the focus of how you do something to how your readers can benefit by adopting the same practice.

2 | Get a baseline score

Once you have your first draft ready, it’s time to determine its readability score. You can use one of several free and paid tools – disclosure: my company, readable.io, is on one of the lists.

With these tests, you can learn the Flesch-Kincaid U.S. grade level along with other standard readability assessments, such as the Flesch Reading Ease, Gunning Fog Index, CEFR, and SMOG Index. Some highlight word by word – or sentence by sentence – the potential readability challenges.

3 | Revise to achieve a correct reading level

As a general rule of thumb, we aim for a reading level of grade eight for our blog posts – which is the level of a 14- or 15-year-old – to ensure that a wide audience can understand our content. We focus on grade 10 for e-books and grade 12 for white papers and books.

Your personas or audience description will help you pick the right grade level for your content

Flesch–Kincaid readability in marketing

4 | Shorten your sentences

The No. 1 element that readability algorithms agree on is that long sentences are bad. Thankfully, it’s an easy fix – shorten your sentences.

Full stops and bullet points are your friend. Use them, and use them often. You’ll soon have content that:

  • Can be easily read online
  • Doesn’t drag and drain your reader
  • Is structured in a reader-friendly way

5 | Reduce the number of long words

Long words are another red flag for readability. Where possible, look for shorter alternatives (e.g., you might replace the word “alternatives” with “options”).

Now, this isn’t always possible, as your organization likely has some words that must be used. Edit to minimize the number of long words but don’t make everything as readable as possible to the detriment of your brand message.

6 | Scrub your copy of buzzwords, geekspeak, jargon, and acronyms

Resist the temptation to fill your content with buzzwords, geekspeak, jargon, or acronyms. They limit the content to those who are already in the know. If you must use challenging terms, explain them.

When working in my first job in London, I had the delight of editing blog posts written by structural engineers. They loved to fill their content with as much jargon and as many acronyms as they could to try to look smarter than their peers. They didn’t care about readability and their audience.

7 | Don’t overuse adverbs

People frequently tend to liberally overuse adverbs, eventually causing sentences to be really cluttered.

If you take all of the adverbs out of that previous sentence, how much better does it sound?

Like anything in life, moderation is key.

8 | Set a balance between formal and conversational

My preferred style of writing edges toward conversational with a formal tone, but you have to match what your audience is expecting. The two styles of writing can be split easily:

Informal

Conversational

Simple

When we talk, we need to breathe. Meaning long sentences aren’t a thing. When writing, aim for less than 30 words in sentences, but less is preferred.

Complex

Longer sentences are more commonplace. Points and opinions are more likely to be fully discussed and concluded.

Empathy

Writers will be able to show that they’ve gone through similar challenges and offer a solution.

Objective

Very matter of fact, without relating to the people or emotions involved in the content.

Colloquial

Similar to how we talk, informal writing involves aspects like figures of speech, slang and local dialect.

Being Scottish, I use “wee” a lot.

Third-person

The writer doesn’t put themselves in the heart of the content. They use terms such as we instead of I.

The talk about the reader, but never place them in content with words such as you.

Contractions and abbreviations

Again, it’s about keeping things simple.

When talking about Netflix, you might write that you’re watching online TV. You also write you’re rather than you are.

With Instagram, you post your photos.

Full words

No contractions, you wins out everytime. As does television and photographs.

Abbreviations are spelt out in full, at least at first.

In conversational content, I aim to make it feel like I’m talking directly with you. It makes the reading experience more personal. It also feels more natural to me to write this way, even after years of writing for a B2B audience.

Just because you’re writing for business doesn’t mean you have to write with no personality. Make sure the flow of copy is natural and not forced.

In some cases, conversational or informal tones are not appropriate (e.g., a privacy policy). But formal doesn’t mean you should abandon readability. Clear language always wins, formal or conversational.

9 | Seek feedback and proofread

Common-sense time, again. As many pairs of eyes as possible should read a document before it goes live. As a writer, you can be too close to the text. Another person can give you the perspective of a reader and point out areas of improvement.

(There have been some great additions to this blog post since my first draft, suggested by those who proofread it. My vanity as a writer won’t let me tell you what they are, just that they exist.)

Conclusion

Readability and content marketing are about the same three principles:

  • Keep your audience at the centre of everything you do.
  • Inform, educate, or entertain your audience.
  • Keep it simple.

Keeping things simple isn’t easy, but practise makes better content. The more you stick to readability principles, the more readily your audience will consume and engage with your content.

 

Original post: Content Marketing Institute



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