Last week I ran a webinar for a longstanding client. We had eight people on the call and were using the Readability Stats in Word to track the improvements in their readability score for each successive version of a re-writing exercise I’d set them. The exercise was to ‘translate’ a piece of corporate gobbledygook into good, old fashioned, mid-register plain English.
The Readability Stats in Word are really useful. They give you a percentage score (called the ‘Flesch Reading Ease’) based on the work of a psychologist called Dr. Rudolph Flesch, a clever man. A Viennese Jew who fled Nazism in the 1930s, Flesch settled in Manhattan and spent the rest of his life there studying readability and writing some really good books about it. This is how they look (and these are the stats for this blog):
Within 90 minutes, everybody on the call had raised their FRE from mid- to late-20% — which is pretty poor — to 60% and beyond. All the delegates saw their readability double and, in a few cases, triple. According to the Stats, plain English — which most B2B writers should be writing, but don’t — starts at an FRE of 60%. It’s rare for business writers to hit the heights of plain English, believe me.
In the readability stats, you need to be aware of four numbers or ‘ratios’. Well, five, if you include word count, but I’m sure you already know how to do that. The four numbers to look out for are:
1. Average words per sentence (ASL), which should be 15–20 words;
2. Flesch Reading Ease, which is a percentage, with plain English kicking in at 60%;
3. The proportion of your sentences in the passive voice, which should be as close as possible to 0%;
4. Average characters per word (circled in red in the Stats below).
I want to focus on the fourth one.
What I noticed during last week’s webinar (and for many years before that!) is that almost all the delegates were using business-speak, buzzwords and ‘MBA-itis’. Besides being honking great clichés that make readers’ eyes glaze over, these words are long and push the average number of characters per word up to 5.0 and beyond.
But even without reading the text, merely by looking at that fourth number, I knew what the problem was: they were being needlessly wordy, formal and verbose. Despite paying lip-service to the concept of plain English, they weren’t using it.
Instead they were writing stuff like ‘We are committed to focusing on this strategic priority…bla-bla-bla.’ This is as far away from plain English as Z is from A.
In some cases I think the number was more like 5.7 or even 6.0 . And even though that may not sound a lot, the moment your average characters per word goes above 5.0, you’re in trouble. That flatulent troll (‘Windy’) has grabbed you by the ankles and is dragging you — and your readability — down.
As I was thinking about this all-too-common problem with business writing, I was reminded of an important writing equation we’d all do well to remember:
The value to the reader of your content should always be greater than the energy they need to expend to get that content:
Value of content to reader > energy needed to get the content
Another way of putting it: the value to the reader of your content should be a multiple of the brain calories they expend to get it. The less readable your writing, the harder you make it for your reader, then the likelier you are to lose them. They may never revisit your writing again, which would be a sorry state of affairs. Don’t let it get to that…or Windy may crush you underfoot.
Scott Keyser is The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words. He issues a daily podcast, ‘The Writing Guy’: https://anchor.fm/scott-keyser/. email@example.com