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Great business practices are built on effective communication. It can be the deciding factor between a business that performs well and engages with customers and a business that is lagging in sales. But what makes communication effective? How can marketing and sales collateral inform the customer and attract attention? How can a business improve communication tactics? As businesses become more sophisticated, so does how they communicate internally and externally. This is, in part, due to the concept of readability.
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 using 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 the right message.
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? Customers need to easily process information. 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 used in readability is the Flesch Reading Ease Formula. It is used to assess the grade level of the reader. The mathematical formula is:
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 4 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. According to a TIME magazine article, in 2000, the average reader attention span was 12 seconds. In 2021, it is seven 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. 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 toward 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.
Plain language is important because the average U.S. adult reads at a seventh- to eighth-grade level. Easy-to-understand language makes complicated topics more accessible, and it also improves the website user experience by addressing its audience like a friend, without formalities.
What Is a Readability Score
A readability score can show what level of education someone needs to easily read a piece of text. For example, using the Flesch-Kincaid readability score of eight is almost equivalent to a reading level of U.S. grade eight. An eighth-grade reading level is appropriate to ages 13-14, and the writer must strike a balance between being informative yet accessible. A variety of readability tools are available to help with messaging and to generate a readability score.
How to Improve a Readability Score
The following tactics can help a business improve its readability score:
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 to be served orange duck with rice on blue-patterned china,” can be shortened to, “The friends gathered for dinner under the candlelight. They enjoyed orange duck with rice. It was served on blue-patterned china.” By diversifying sentence length, the reader can easily scan and digest the text.
2. Minimize the number of long words. Another component on which readability is scored 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 when writing for the public. If writing for the legal or financial industry, though, a writer may have to use more complicated terminology that is appropriate for that audience.
3. Write for your audience. Be inclusive and transparent with your audience. A piece of writing is more effective when it takes into consideration the language a particular audience uses. A good example is the legal industry, which is known for having terminology and jargon associated with its communication. If a writer chooses to use complex terminology, they should offer definitions in the text. Again, the communication should not ostracize your reader.
4. Use punctuation. Proper punctuation helps your reader understand what is being said. Run-on sentences, fragments and 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.
5. Stick to a structure. A writer should think about the story they want 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 — factors 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, teachers use readability to decide whether a particular text is suitable in a curriculum for students. In the business sector, many types of businesses use it to simplify documents, so they are easier to read.
This is true both for internal and external communications. For example, a tech company may check for readability in an instructional manual it created for its users. If that tech company uses the Content Analytics Platform from Scion Analytics, it can take advantage of creating dictionaries. By using dictionaries in readability, a business can specify words it wants to avoid in writing, jargon, inappropriate phrases, clichés and legal risk words. The flexibility and customization of a dictionary help businesses ensure 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, webpages and articles can help professionals establish metrics for text. Using metrics, these professionals can make improvements 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.
Marina Roukalova is a content creator for Scion Analytics. She is a published writer who covers tech and business in Tampa Bay, Florida.
This thought leadership article was sponsored by Scion Analytics.
Scion Analytics is a tech company based in Rocky Point, Tampa, Florida. Its Content Analytics Platform uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing to transform how businesses leverage content. It encourages innovators to “imagine what you can do” with the software.