11 June 2020
How many times have you started reading something only to realise, a paragraph or two in, that you have no idea what is actually being said?
A few times? More than a few?
Good news. It’s not you. It’s the text.
Effective marketing and effective communication are all about making sure your message is understood. The problem is, particularly when businesses talk to other businesses, communication becomes unnecessarily complicated.
Sometimes, it’s to show off and come across as more knowledgeable.
Sometimes, it’s to intimidate readers.
Sometimes, it’s to mask the fact that the writer doesn’t really understand what they’re saying.
Sometimes, because everybody else is doing it.
People seem to think that they have to use convoluted business-speak and jargon to appeal to larger organisations and executives, but at the end of the day, it’s still a person that’s going to be reading what you write.
With that in mind, here are some tips to make sure your words are hitting the mark.
How to communicate more clearly.
In case you haven’t come across this particular acronym before, it stands for ‘Keep it simple, stupid’, and let’s just say Prince was onto something in his song.
You don’t have to be rich to be my girl, You don’t have to be cool to rule my world
Ain’t no particular sign I’m more compatible with
I just want your extra time and your
It doesn’t matter who you are or how big and trendy your organisation is if your communication is too complicated for your target audience to understand.
Ideally, your brand will have a defined and documented Tone of Voice, shaped to appeal to your target audience. Whether you do have one already or you don’t, here’s an exercise for you to try now:
Write down all the industry-specific jargon, and acronyms you can think of. Look at your list and put a mark next to each one that the general public is unlikely to understand. Then, write an alternative next to those. Keep that list next to you and before you hit publish on anything, search your document for those words and phrases and swap them out for one of your listed alternatives.
When you’re immersed in your industry and the associated language, it’s easy to forget that lots of people won’t understand what you’re talking about – and chances are it’s those people who’ll need your help and will be the ones hiring you!
Once you’ve taken care of jargon and technical language, it’s time to look at the rest of your language. Don’t forget that your writing needs to be accessible to a wide range of people. People who might not be as educated as you. People who might not have the same mother tongue as you. People who are tired and busy and don’t have the extra brain space to read something convoluted right now.
The easiest way to check this is by running your text through a readability test. There are a number of readability tests out there including Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Gunning Fog, and more. Each is slightly optimised for different types of texts, so if you want to choose the most appropriate one for you, read up about them here.
The Flesch-Kincaid, however, is the most widely used tool. It tells you how easy your text is to understand using US school grades as a benchmark. Copy your text into something like this and it will spit out a numerical score which correlates to a school year (so a score of 5 means a 5th grader should be able to understand it).
The score is calculated using sentence and word length, and you want to aim for a score of 8 or lower to make sure the majority of adult readers can easily understand you.
How to self edit
In an ideal world, we’d all have access to people willing and able to edit our work before it gets published. Given how unlikely that is, here are some tips to help you self edit:
- Take a break and come back.
Leave it overnight if you can, or at least work on something else for a while and come back with fresh eyes.
- Read it aloud.
This will help you write in a more natural, conversational tone and help you pick up any rambling sentences or unrefined concepts.
- Have it read aloud to you.
There are a variety of ways to do this, depending on what you’re writing in and your operating system. A quick search of your word processor and ‘text to speech’ should give you what you need. Doing this is valuable even if you’ve already read it aloud yourself as our brains often correct patterns and don’t pick up on things like double words. (Ever typed ‘the the’ without realising?)
- Print it out.
Sometimes our eyes get too used to looking at the same screen over and over. Printing out your piece of writing and going over it with a pen in hand can help you spot other typos and inconsistencies.
Active vs Passive Voice
In grammatical terms, active voice is when the subject of the sentence performs the action described by the verb. Passive voice is when the subject ‘receives’ the action.
Active Voice: The child ate the chocolates.
Passive Voice: The chocolates were eaten by the child.
Active voice is more concise and easier to understand and it’s normally more effective, however passive voice is sometimes used to shift the focus. In the above example, the active voice phrase focuses on the child while the passive phrase focuses more on the chocolates.
Choose your voice carefully, but if in doubt, always use the active voice.
You’re not trying to hit a word count.
It’s not University. You don’t need to hit a specific word count to submit your assignment. Use only as many words as you need to get your point across.
Remember. Communication is about getting your message across, not impressing people with how many big words you can use. Don’t share convoluted copy because it makes you feel smart- your messaging is only as good as what people can take from it!