The other day, I spoke about a webinar that I ran for a client. I had sent them a very short paragraph written in corporate gobbledygook, and their mission—should they have chosen to accept it—was to rewrite it in plain English. That meant using simple, jargon-free language. Using the readability stats in Word, everybody, without exception, managed to double their readability as measured by the Flesch reading ease score. In Kelly’s case, her results were simply stunning.
So what I’d like to do is share with you her original rewrite, along with its readability score. Then I’ll share her ultimate version, with amazing readability.
Kelly’s paragraph, with low readability
This was Kelly’s original rewrite:
‘We’re excited to create our new e-business strategy. And we’d like to get your ideas on how we can shape our new strategy.’ (So she changed the tone of voice a little bit, quite rightly trying to make it more inspirational and direct using ‘you’ and ‘your’, in second person singular. Then she goes on to write…) ‘To help inspire you, our objective is online innovation, supporting profitability, customer acquisition…and brand enhancement must continue to drive what we do. We must also set clear targets that are achievable, and demonstrate our capabilities’. I like the beginning of that, where she’s using a contraction. ‘We’re excited to create our new business strategy and we’d like to get your ideas’. So that’s nice and human and conversational, but then to my ear, at least, it sort of lapses into a kind of management-speak with ‘online innovation, customer acquisition and brand enhancement’. And then she talks about ‘demonstrating our capabilities’ which is not really plain English.
Now, when we score the readability on that, her average sentence length (ASL) was just within range at 19.6 words, but her average characters per word ran to 5.1 which is a little bit too high. That immediately indicates to me that she’s using needlessly formal, polysyllabic words. As a result, her readability score was only 36%.
So we worked on it together, just for a few minutes, proving that this stuff is so easy. You know, writing with impact, writing concisely, writing with personality and power is not rocket science. This is a learnable skill.
Doubled readability in Kelly’s revision
Here is Kelly’s revised version:
‘We’re excited about creating a new e-business strategy and we’d like your ideas to help shape it. To help you, our main goal is online innovation. That will help you to win new customers, build your brand and make more money. Hitting these targets will show that we have the right mix of skills.’
So I slightly changed just a couple of the words there but you get the idea. It’s shorter. It’s more concise. We’ve kept the the contractions, which renders it conversational and human. And in fact, that first line has got quite a nice rhythm to it. ‘We’re excited about creating our new e-business strategy and we’d like your ideas to help shape it.’ There’s a bit of a rhythm there. And then we’ve got a short sentence ‘To help you, our main goal is online innovation’. Okay, full stop. ‘We’d like you to focus…’ Because she used the word focus which is a S.O.W. (Severely Over-used Word), I just replaced that on the hoof. ‘That will help you to win new customers…’ here we have verbs, including ‘build’ and ‘make more money’.
So can you hear that? Hear the difference between ‘supporting profitability, customer acquisition and brand enhancement…’ in the first version? ‘To win new customers, build your brand and make more money’? You know, it’s plainer English. It’s simpler and more powerful. Much easier to read.
We decided to launch the last sentence with a gerund, which is a verbal noun: ‘Hitting these targets will show…’, rather than ‘demonstrate’. ‘Show’ is one syllable, ‘demonstrate’ is three syllables. Use the simpler word: ‘Hitting these targets will show that we have the right mix of skills’, rather than ‘We must also set clear targets that are achievable and demonstrate our capabilities.’
The overwhelming readability preference
Don’t know about you, but I certainly know which style of writing I’d prefer to read. That later, ultimate version that Kelly created had an average sentence length of 14 words, which is brilliant. Average characters per word dropped from 5.1 to 4.5 because she started using simpler, shorter words and simpler language. As a result of that, we doubled her readability. It went from 36% to just under 72%, which is well within plain English.
Hats off to Kelly, who just showed how easy it was, with brilliant results. I would say we did that in a total elapsed time of 10 or 15 minutes. That’s how easy this stuff is! I really want to impress upon you that the ability to write with impact, power and personality is an eminently learnable skill that is within everybody’s gifts. So on that note—that hopefully inspiring note—I’m going to leave it there for now.
Thank you, Kelly, for being a brilliant delegate.
This readability article has been taken directly from Episode 146 of The Writing Guy podcast. Please have a listen if you’d like.
I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write. Interested in transforming your writing? Then please get in touch for a relaxed, no-obligation chat with Scott. Simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.