Emails, reports, blog posts, tweets, articles – whatever you write at work says a lot about you and your business.
This article was originally posted in the Harvard Business Review.
Clear, relevant writing keeps people coming back for more. Complicated, dull writing does the opposite: People tune out, switch off, and stay away.
In business, understanding your target market is key to success. Effective writing is the same. It starts with knowing what your readers are really like.
The most recent national assessment of adult literacy in the United States showed that 43% of adults have “basic” or “below basic” literacy skills. In the UK, the average reading age for adults is just nine years old.
For these adults, it can be hard to understand the language on household bills, or even food packaging. What does that mean for your writing? Simply put, if you’re talking to a general audience, you need to make it easily understood.
Effective writing is easy to absorb. It suits how people read (scanning) and their speed (fast). Short sentences, common vocabulary, and clear formatting are great ways to make content as digestible as possible.
The British Government’s website is a great place to see this in action. It’s built on a simple principle: to help citizens find the information they need, fast. It does this by being easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to navigate.
How to make your writing more readable
The good news is, you probably already have the skills to write effectively. Because being easily understood doesn’t involve clever tricks or academic theory. It’s about stripping out complexity and getting to the point.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Talk like a human, not a business
Traditional business writing is plagued by stiff formality. One easy fix? Write in the first person. It feels personal and inviting compared to third person, which sounds aloof and cold.
Here’s a classic bit of corporate third person: “Humbert & Herbert is a residential estate agent offering customers friendly, clear, and straightforward advice.”
In the first person, it’s warmer: “We’ll give you the clear, friendly home-buying advice you need.” See?
Don’t be afraid to start sentences with imperatives like “Get,” “Download,” or “Join.” Or conjunctions (like I just did). It makes for clearer, more engaging writing. And it’s how we speak in real life.
The best way to weed out “corporate-speak” is to read your writing aloud. If it sounds natural (or awkward) to you, it’ll probably sound the same to your readers.
2. Cut complexity
Often, we use complex expressions out of habit. We might talk about “issues potentially impacting the successful completion of the merger” instead of “things that could affect the merger.” But overblown language is confusing. It leaves readers cold – and potentially confused.
So favor shorter, more familiar words over longer, more complicated ones. And explain things in a way that everyone will understand.
3. Make your content glanceable
These days, most of your writing will be read on a screen — most likely a small phone screen – through email and social media. The people who read it will be distracted, busy, on-the-go. That’s why glanceable content is so important. It’s how you can catch readers’ attention – and keep it.
Research backs this up. Jakob Nielsen is a world-leading expert on web usability. In his seminal 1997 study of how users read the web, Nielsen found that only 16% of people read every word of text. The vast majority of us skim the screen, picking out words and sentences.
Formatting is a great way to help skim-readers understand your content – on screen or paper. Try using informative subheads, bullet points, diagrams and tables to steer busy readers towards your important messages.
Short sentences and short paragraphs help too. A good rule of thumb is “one thought per sentence.” Too many linked ideas in one sentence, and readers get lost.
4. Get to the point
Don’t assume everyone’s captivated by what you have to say. Tell busy people what they need to know up front, and they’ll keep coming back.
Think like a journalist: What’s the number one thing your reader needs to know? Say that first. Then build out from there, keeping the most important points up top.
5. Human benefits, not product features
Peppering your copy with product features puts readers off. And no amount of adjective-stuffing will help.
That’s because people haven’t got the time to unpack what features mean. A “luxurious cotton-merino blend fabric” sounds nice enough. But why does it matter in a t-shirt? And why does it matter to your reader?
Spelling out the benefits (instead of just listing features) does the hard work for your reader: “Keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer, thanks to its cotton-merino blend.”
When Apple launched its original iPod in 2001, the ads could have celebrated its 5GB memory, Firewire connectivity, and 1.8-inch drive. But who knows what any of that means?
Instead, Apple ran with: “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Over 400 million iPod sales later, it’s fair to say the world listened.
Visualize your reader, and write for them
Before you start writing, it pays to think carefully about who you’re writing for. Even if it’s an email to 5,000 people, imagine you’re writing to just one person. Who are they, and what do they want from this email – really?
Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, famously writes his company’s annual letter with his sisters, Doris and Bertie, in mind. They’re intelligent, but not experts in investing or finance. With them in mind, he’s able to write a letter that’s just the right balance of accessible and informative.
So next time you write something, find your Doris and Bertie, and write for them.