Readability is a practice that determines how easy or difficult it is for a reader to understand a piece of text. There are different methods and equations for measuring readability which is comprised of different elements of writing. For example, word choice or syntax can influence readability. In marketing copy, a business that chooses the word “nonchalant” instead of “easygoing” is a business that is selecting to use words with poorer readability. For customers, these words are unfamiliar or complex leading to confusing and open-ended interpretations of the text. A business focused on effective communication is committed to sending out the right message.
Great business practices are built on effective communication. It can be the deciding factor between a business that performs well and engages with customers versus a business that is lagging in sales. But what makes communication effective? How can marketing and sales collateral inform the customer as well as attract attention? How can a business improve communication tactics? As businesses become more sophisticated so does how the business communicates internally and externally. This is in part due to the concept of readability.
On a general level, other factors go into a text’s readability such as sentence length, structure, and average syllables per word. Why is readability important? For a business, a customer needs to easily process information without straining to understand the text. Marketing copy that is full of jargon and complex ideas might make a customer lose interest in the company, bounce from the website, and not make a purchase.
One of the formulas that are used in readability is the Flesch Reading Ease Formula. It is used to assess the grade level of the reader. The Flesch Reading Ease Formula has become the standard used by many US government agencies such as the US Department of Defense.
The Specific Mathematical Formula Is For Flesch Reading Ease Formula:
RE = 206.835 – (1.015 x ASL) – (84.6 x ASW)
RE = Readability Ease
ASL = Average Sentence Length (i.e., the number of words divided by the number of sentences)
ASW = Average number of syllables per word (i.e., the number of syllables divided by the number of words)
To fully understand the benefits of readability, the accessibility of text needs to be put into the context of the Digital Age. The pioneers of readability, Rudolf Flesch and Robert Gunning, could not foresee the tremendous volume of information that would flood the Internet. In its nascence, the Internet was a convenient way to share information that evolved into a content machine. These days, over four billion people are online, and businesses are aware that “content is king” contributing to an even greater demand for sticky content.
The sheer volume of information has probably shortened the attention span of readers. Research has found that in 2000 the average reader attention span was 12 seconds. In 2021, the average reader’s attention span is 7 seconds. That is a short time frame for the writer to grab attention and convince the reader to continue reading.
The pressure for content to be engaging keeps mounting as businesses undergo digital transformations. The benefit of a readability score is that it assesses how easy the text is to read. The easier the text is to read the more likely it will hold the reader’s attention. Readability provides quantifiable measurements for a text that can be used to set targets and metrics as part of a content strategy.
Another benefit of readability is its use of plain language guidelines. Plain language is a movement towards simplifying the content. It was started to make complex legal documents easier to read and is now mandated by the government and used by businesses around the world. In 2010, President Obama passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 requiring federal executive agencies to adhere to plain language guidelines.
Why is plain language important? The basis of the law was the consideration that the average US adult reads at an eighth-grade level. This statistic shows the necessity of using inclusive language in government communication and beyond. Because plain and easy-to-understand language makes complicated topics more accessible to theaverage reader. It also improves the website user experience by addressing the website audience like a friend without formalities, in plain language.
What Is A Readability Score
For businesses, a variety of readability tools are available to help with messaging. By utilizing a readability tool, a business can generate a readability score. A readability score can signify to a business what level of education someone needs to read a piece of text easily. For example, using the Flesch-Kincaid readability score of 8 is approximately equivalent to a reading level of US grade 8. An 8th-grade reading level is appropriate to ages 13-14 and the writer must strike a balance between being informative yet accessible.
How To Improve A Readability Score
In business, the clarity and effectiveness of the message are important for successful communication. Once a business has come to rely on a readability tool, it can find ways to improve a readability score. The following are proven tactics for better readability:
1. Use Shorter Sentences
There are different readability formulas but one common denominator in all of them is: sentence length. By shortening a sentence, a writer can ensure a better readability score. For example, the sentence: “The friends had gathered for dinner under the candlelight with blue china patterns to be served orange duck with rice.” Can be shortened to: “The friends had gathered for dinner. It was served on blue china patterns. They enjoyed an orange duck with rice under the candlelight.” By breaking up sentence length, the reader can digest the point of each sentence easier. It also makes it easier to scan the text.
2. Minimize The Number Of Long Words
Another component on which readability is score is word length. Some tests, such as the Flesch-Kincaid, use the number of syllables to calculate word length. Other tests, such as Coleman-Liau, calculate word length based on letter count. For example, using the word “prohibited” instead of “banned” will decrease readability. Using shorter, simpler words is a good tactic to use when writing for the public. However, writing for a legal or the financial industry, a writer may have to use more complicated terminology that is appropriate for that audience.
3. Write For Your Audience
One of the foremost rules of plain language and readability is to be inclusive and transparent with your audience. A piece of writing is so much more effective when it takes into consideration the language particular to the audience it is addressing. A good example is a legal industry which is known for having legal terminology and jargon associated with its communication. If a writer chooses to use terminology, he should offer definitions in the text. With the readability, the goal in mind should be not to ostracize your reader. Considering that the average American reads at an 8th-grade level, that is the baseline most writers need to be mindful about when writing.
4. Use Punctuation
The goal of punctuation is to help your reader understand what is being said. Run-on sentences, fragments, inappropriate or misplaced punctuation lower readability scores. If the use of punctuation is an issue, writers should consult grammar checks or brush up on punctuation rules to make sure it is used properly.
5. Stick To A Structure
For the best readability, it is important to have text that is grammatically correct, clear, and concise. Another factor to consider is how to structure the text. A writer should think about the story he wants to tell. What are the key points? Does the reader need to know more information before engaging with the key takeaways? Having an outline for the text can help the writer prioritize the focus of the article. It also helps the reader follow the story and internalize the message, things that are conducive to readability.
Industries That Use Readability
Readability as a tool and as a practice has meaningful application in many industries. For example, in education teachers use readability to decide whether a particular text is suitable in a curriculum for students. If “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the English literature classic is appropriate for a 9th-grade reading level, it may therefore be too simplistic for an 11th grade English class.
In the business sector, many types of businesses utilize readability to simplify documents, so they are easier to read. This is true both for internal and external communications. For example, a tech company may run readability on an instructional manual it composed for its users. Furthermore, if that tech company uses the Content Analytics Platform (CAP) from Scion Analytics it can take advantage of creating dictionaries.
By using dictionaries in readability, a business can specific words that it wants to avoid in writing, jargon, inappropriate phrases, cliches, and legal risk words. The flexibility and customization of a dictionary help businesses ensure that their message is easy to communicate to the intended audience.
Finally, readability is widely used by marketing departments to assess how well readers engage with digital marketing materials. Running readability of online texts such as blog posts, web pages, and articles can help professionals establish metrics for text. Using metrics, these professionals can improve the text to get better business results.
Readability is a practice and a tool that can help businesses communicate more effectively. Its adherence to plain language and reliance on short sentences, simple words, and easy to digest language makes it indispensable in engaging the reader with the right message.