How to double your readability (episode 146 of ‘The Writing Guy’ podcast)

Here’s a ROUGH TRANSCRIPTION of Episode 146 of The Writing Guy podcast (and here’s the link to the actual podcast):

Hi, 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.

The other day, I spoke about a webinar that I ran for a client. Last Friday, actually. So a week ago today, where I’d sent them in advance, a very short paragraph and kind of gobbledygook corporate gobbledygook, and their mission should they have chosen to accept it was to turn that into, to rewrite that as plain English. Using simple, jargon-free language. And I think I mentioned that we managed to using the readability stats in Word, everybody, without exception managed to double their readability as measured by the Flesch reading ease score and I blogged about this the other day, and in one case, a lovely lady called Kelly, we managed to triple her readability which was stunning.

So what I’d like to do is just share with you her original version, not the original version of the exercise but her first version of the rewrite, read that out to you and share with you the readability that that scored. It won’t take very long to read. And then what I’ll do after that is share with you the ultimate version if you like. That got an amazing readability. So this, this was her sort of original rewrite which was you know, which was fine. But it was, you know, there are ways of improving and so it reads as follows.

Kelly had written: ‘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 the, the original was she, she changed the tone of voice a little bit, quite rightly trying to make it more sort of inspirational and direct using ‘you’ and ‘your’, the second person singular, and 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’. Now, 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 bit of 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, which immediately indicates to me, as I’m sure you probably heard from when I read it, which indicates to me that she’s using needlessly formal, polysyllabic words. And as a result, her readability was only 36%. So we worked on it together, just for a few minutes and I, you know, this is part of really what I want to kind of impress upon you, which is that this stuff is so easy. You know, writing with impact, writing concisely, writing with personality and power is just not, it’s not rocket science. This is really, it’s a learnable skill.

So anyway, let me just read to you her 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, I slightly changed just a couple of the 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, I think, has got quite 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’ or that will I think I said, because she used the word focus which is a S.O.W. (Severely Over-used Word) so I just replaced that on the hoof. ‘That will help you to win new customers’ so when verb, build the brand or your brand or our brand, ‘build’ verb, and ‘make more money’. Now the verb. 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 our brand and make more money’. You know, it’s plainer English it’s simpler, and it’s more powerful, it’s much easier to read and as a result, and also just before I share with you the readability. 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 simple 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.’

Don’t know about you, but I certainly know which style of writing I’d prefer to read. Now that, that later the ultimate version that we created, that Kelly created, actually scored, let me just find it. So she reduced her ASL average sentence length, to 14 words, which is brilliant. Average characters per word dropped from 5.1 to 4.5, because she, she started using simpler shorter words simpler language, and there was that as a result of that, get this, I mean we doubled (I think I said triple) but actually it was double. We doubled her readability, almost exactly actually from 36% to just under 72% readability which is well within plain English.

So you know, Hats off to Kelly, who just showed how easy it was, how easy it is to do that, and a brilliant result. And I would say that we did that in total elapsed time of 10, 15 minutes, you know, folks. 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 the gift of everybody. So on that note on that, hopefully inspiring note, I’m going to leave it there for now.

Thank you Kelly for being a brilliant delegate. And I’ll see you tomorrow for episode 147. Thanks for listening. Bye now.


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Transcribed by (thanks, Otter!)