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Be simple and clear

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To get your message across, you need to use simple language. Why? Complex language loses your audience.

A study of U.S. adult literacy showed that:

  • About 1 out of 5 Americans reads at a 1st to 3rd grade level. Many did not finish high school. Others learned English as a second language.
  • Only 3 out of 100 Americans can read at an 11th grade level.

That's why The Wall Street Journal writes front-page stories at a 9th grade level. The news media has learned the lesson of readability. Marketers can learn from them.

The two main drivers of readability are word length and sentence length.

Use short words

Fortunately, the English language has multiple roots. Its longer, complex words came from Latin and the Romance languages.

For each complex word, there's a simple English word that came from the Jutes, Saxons and Angles. You can choose from two parallel sets of words – simple or complex.

If you could choose either the words on the left or on the right, which would more people understand?

ambulate

walk

prevaricate

lie

demonstrate

show

indicate

point out

indolent

lazy

appropriate

right

corpulent

fat

sufficient

enough

You can double-check word length in a text by circling every word with a root of more than two syllables. Then, plug in a shorter word.

Write short sentences

Back in the 1880s, English professor Lucius Adelno Sherman learned that sentence length was a key to readability. Before Shakespeare, the average English sentence was 50 words long. In Shakespeare's time, sentences shrank to 40 words.

Today's average sentence is only 20 words, according to William DuBay.

But even shorter sentences are far more readable. More Tweetable. And more memorable.

Copywriters who write billboards have learned: the magic sentence length is seven words.

When sentences are shorter than eight words, Americans understand the sentences 100%. A sentence of 14 words attains just 90% comprehension.

At 43 words, comprehension drops to 10%, according to a study by the American Press Institute.
Woefully, most contracts are written in endless sentences. That's why no one can read them.

But we can make marketing communications readable. Yes, it's more work. But that's the price to gain more readers.

Thanks to our writing coach Anne Wylie, we're putting short words and sentences into practice at Tellabs.

(Note: I wrote this blog at a 6th grade level.)

George Stenitzer
@riverwordguy

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