How Readable is Your Writing?
Financial professionals need to get persuasive messages into minds that are full of to-do lists, strategic decisions and domestic pressures. Articles and reports are important ways of reaching a wide audience and establishing credentials. This article demonstrates how you can tell if your writing is likely to be read.
Not everything in print is readable
A survey of the financial press reveals extremes. At one end there are articles with lots of gravitas, important-sounding words and very long sentences that make hard going for readers.
The extremely daunting and complicated task of identifying and recovering all assets believed to be owned by or owed to the company requires detailed forensic accounting investigation, not to mention immeasurable patience with and sensitivity towards the large numbers of people who have lost their livelihoods as a direct result of the dishonesty that is now becoming apparent. (One sentence, 58 words.)
The sentence above is difficult to understand, partly because there are 22 words before you reach the main verb (requires) which tells you what is going on. At the other end of the scale, here is an example of a light-touch story-telling approach that is easy to skim read but may not convey the appropriate amount of seriousness for some purposes.
He sits shoulder-to-shoulder with Herz, both men now single-minded in their goal. They have to be. The inevitable cultural differences, disagreements and rivalries which come with any global enterprise of this scale can easily derail efforts, and almost have. (13 words per sentence)
The Long and Winding roadmap Mario Christodoulou AA Feb 2010
Four tests for accessible writing
So the challenge is to combine the strong points of both styles – to find the right tone and yet make it accessible enough for a busy, tired or stressed professional to get your point. Here are four tips.
1. Write for your audience, not yourself.
What do they know already, what do they need to know and what do they really care about? You need to hook into areas of existing knowledge to give your reader the confidence and the incentive to carry on reading. Then you need to give them something new and interesting to reward the effort. When you write, imagine that you are holding a discussion with them. Think about the words you use too, avoid in-house jargon and words like ‘platform’ that have a specific meaning for you that they may not share.
2. Have a clear objective and meet it.
What do you want to happen as a result of these people reading what you write? Your readers need a motive to devote time to your document – what is it? Can you help them to impress their boss? Will they be better able to complete a task they struggle with? Give them a concise message to take away, and something they can do to learn more, or to act on your suggestions.
3. Make each paragraph count.
Each paragraph must have a point: background and context; scope; facts useful information; analysis and recommendations. Don’t underestimate the importance of context and introduction. These should provide your intended readers with an incentive to read on. The structure of the rest of the document is a road map which guides even the weariest commuter through your thought process without missing a step.
4. Watch for sentence length and structure.
You can measure average sentence length and readability scores using MS Word tools. Make sure that you have the ‘readability statistics’ box ticked. (To find this in Word 2007: office button/word options/proofing; Word 97-2003: tools/options/spelling and grammar.) When you have run the grammar checker over a document you will get a box which tells you, amongst other things, your average sentence length and your Flesch reading ease (FRE) index. Readable business writing in my opinion tends to have an average sentence length around 20 words.
Flesch Reading Ease Index
This is derived from your sentence length and the number of syllables in your words using a formula that you can look up on Wikipedia if the details interest you. Briefly, the higher the score, the easier the text is to read – and it surprisingly accurate. If your target audience is educated and reasonably familiar with your topic, an FRE index in the mid to high 40s is about right. An article in the Sun which I measured scored 74. A sentence similar to the 58 word one at the beginning of this article occurred in an article with an average sentence length of 32 words and an FRE index of 20. The article by Mario Christodoulou had 17 words per sentence and an FRE index of 55. This article scores 22 and 46.
Find something you wrote a few weeks ago (so that you can be reasonably objective) and give yourself an honest score out of ten for each of the four tips above. Resolve to do better on anything under seven out of ten.
Let me know how you get on.