You’re not dumbing it down; you’re lifting it up
It never fails.
When I talk in my writing workshops about the importance of making copy easy to read and understand, there’s always one communicator who can’t believe the advice applies to her.
“Are you kidding?” she gasps. “I’m writing to surgeons / executives / pharmacists /school district superintendents/engineers/financial planners/horse breeders. These folks are superbly educated, brilliant and smart as a whip. There’s no way they’ll read anything that easy.”
Let’s leave aside for now the fact that just 2% of your audience can read at the 11th grade level, according to the 2003 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC.
I’ve always argued that if you think your audience members are especially elevated or educated, then you should make your copy more readable. Executives, surgeons and other highly educated readers, after all, tend to have more stuff to read and less time to read it. So we need to make messages for those folks even easier to process.
But now there’s new evidence that we should make all of our communications — even those written to highly educated, highly literate readers — easier to read and understand.
Readability helps highly literate readers.
We’d expect readability to benefit folks with low literacy. But what about highly literate readers?
That’s what the folks at the Nielsen Norman Group set out to learn in a recent study.
NNG researchers started with an off-the-shelf pharmaceutical ad. You know how hard those are to read, what with all of the legalese, caveats and disclaimers.
Then the researchers had two groups of people — highly literate folks and those with lower literacy — read the ads and answer some questions.
Highly literate group performs better. Unsurprisingly, the highly literate group outperformed those with low literacy on all three measures of success:
1. Understanding. People with higher literacy understood the message better.
- The low-literacy group answered 46% of the questions right.
- The highly literate group answered 82% correctly.
2. Task time. It’s only in the alternative reality world of Google Analytics Page View Time that we give ourselves more points for the longer it takes people to read. “Faster to read” has for decades been a hallmark of writing success.
- Those with low literacy took 22 minutes to read the ad.
- The highly literate group took only 14 minutes to read it.
3. Satisfaction. Nobody likes reading these things. But the low-literacy group enjoyed the experience even less than those with high literacy.
- Those with lower literacy scored their satisfaction 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 10.
- The highly literate group gave the experience a 3.7 out of 10.
Then the folks at the Nielsen Norman Group rewrote the ad. They used shorter sentences, shorter words and explanatory graphics to increase readability.
Highly literate perform even better with more readable copy. Unsurprisingly, the low literacy group performed significantly better on the more readable ad. The real surprise was that the highly literate group also performed much, much better with more readable copy.
1. Understanding. Both groups understood the clearer message better:
- The low-literacy group answered nearly half again as many questions correctly — 68%, compared to 46%. That’s a 48% increase.
- The highly literate group understood the more readable ad 13% better, answering 93% of the questions correctly, compared to 82%.
Do you really want your highly educated readers to misunderstand 13% of your message?
2. Task time. Both groups read the more readable message faster:
- Those with low literacy took only 10 minutes to read the revised ad, down from 22 minutes for the more difficult one. That’s a 55% increase in reading speed.
- The highly literate group saved nine minutes on the revised ad, finishing it in five minutes, down from 14.
That’s a 64% increase.
Give me my nine minutes back! Nobody wants to spend more time reading your message, especially not your super-busy highly literate readers.
3. Satisfaction. Both groups enjoyed reading the easier-to-read message more:
- Those with lower literacy liked reading the revised ad 76% more, increasing their score from 2.5 to 4.4 on a scale of 1 to 10.
- The highly literate group liked reading the revised ad 30% more, boosting their satisfaction score from 3.7 to 4.8.
“‘This is too easy to read,’ said nobody ever,” says Kate Meyer, a user experience specialist at Nielsen Norman Group. Literally, in all of the firm’s research, not one single person has ever wished that anything was harder to read.
Repeat after me: “My audience is not the exception.”
There is no reason not to make all of your messages to all of your audience members easier to read. There’s nothing dumb about it.
Dumb, dumb, dumb-dumb.
I’ll be honest: The phrase “dumbing it down” makes me recoil. Leaving aside the political incorrectness of the phrase, who, exactly, do we think is “dumb” here?
It must be the reader, who isn’t smart enough, well-educated enough or willing to spend enough time to understand your lofty message in its original, magnificent form. So you have to make your dazzling message dumber and dumber until the dumb reader can finally get it.
That’s not a very respectful way to approach your audience.
I prefer to think of increasing readability not as dumbing down but as lifting up your message. When you make your message more readable, you’re respecting your reader and her time enough to take the time and effort to make it easier and faster for her to read.
You’re also respecting your message enough to get the word out to the most people in the least amount of time.
Winston Churchill wasn’t dumb.
That’s what Winston Churchill did: He used tiny words to write highly readable messages.
In his “Never Give In” speech, for instance, he used words that average 4.2 characters. Its most famous passage (“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty”) weighs in at an average of just 3.6 characters per word.
“Never Give In” scores 75 on the Flesch Reading Ease Scale of 0 to 100. That puts it at about the 7th grade level, which makes it fairly easy to read.
Eloquent? Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for his contributions to the written word. He remains to this day one of the most respected writers in the history of the English language.
Effective? Churchill rallied the British, defied the Nazis, and inspired the United States to fight. Some say he saved the Western world with his (tiny) words.
Dumb? Not on your life.
“Short words are best,” he wrote, deftly using words of only one syllable, “and old words when short are the best of all.”
Other people who aren’t dumb
Other people who aren’t dumb include:
- Abraham Lincoln. Of the 235 words in his Gettysburg Address — that’s fewer than the number on the back of a potato chip package today — 174 of them have only one syllable. Lincoln spoke for only two minutes at Gettysburg, while Edward Everett, the great orator of the day, spoke for nearly two hours. Yet who remembers what Everett said? Who remembers his name?
- William Shakespeare. “Shakespeare wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound,” wrote novelist Kurt Vonnegut. “‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters.”
- Reporters for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Writers for both publications cover the most complex topics in science, business and the world. And they do so using words that, according to our analysis, average than 5 characters.
So who’s really dumb when it comes to “dumbing it down”? Just writers — and, let’s be fair, their subject matter experts — who believe that only big words and unruly sentences can capture their massive ideas.
Nobody wants it to be harder.
When you make your messages easier to read, everybody wins: people who struggle to understand the simplest messages, as well as highly literate, well-educated readers.
“People prefer to read and get information at a level below their capacity,” writes Douglas Mueller, president of the Gunning-Mueller Clear Writing Institute. “Even a Harvard University professor prefers to get information without strain.”
I wrote this piece, for example, for a highly literate audience — you! It averages 4.8 character words and weighs in at the 8th grade level.
How much harder do you want it to be?