Customers don’t usually curl up by the fireside and devour your collateral. If they look at it at all, they browse it – often while doing other things.
No matter how profound your insights, it makes sense to follow the KISS principal – as in Keep It Simple Stupid. If you’re writing a graduate school thesis, don’t expect anyone but your committee to read it. I’m not recommending that you dumb down your prose. Say what you need to say, but clearly and briefly.
To help make it easier for your potential customers, consider using a measure of readability. Educator Rudolph Flesch, author of Why Johnny Can’t Read and early advocate of phonics, proposed a readability index*. You can get Flesch’s Reading Ease score automatically – it’s built into the spell checker of Microsoft Word. (You may have to turn this feature on, before using it for the first time.) If you don’t use Word, you can use free online sites such as Edit Central.
More readable text has a higher index. Consider an example from an Iowa public health program:
Reading Ease of 48.0:
Babies born to women who are covered by one of Iowa’s health care programs are covered through the month of their first birthday, provided the baby continues to live with the mother and reside in the state of Iowa.
Reading Ease of 80.1:
Are you pregnant? Do you get health coverage from an Iowa program? If you do, your baby will also be covered. Coverage will last until the end of the month of your baby’s first birthday. The baby must live with you in Iowa.
If you were marketing the program, which copy would you use?
As a simple test, I grabbed some copy from websites of major brands. The easiest to read was from Sony Playstation; the most difficult from a consumer publication of the Federal Reserve. In this sample, the firms offering easier reading also tend to be more successful.
Ease of reading is, of course, only one ingredient of good copy. Since it’s so easy to test, why not grade your latest masterpiece before pushing the publish button?
* Reading Ease score = 206.835 − (1.015 × ASL) − (84.6 × ASW)
Where: ASL = average sentence length (number of words divided by number of sentences)
ASW = average word length in syllables (number of syllables divided by number of words)