Benchmark readability against the BBC

How does your clarity stack up?

The BBC covers the most serious news known to man — West Bank stabbings, friendly fire air strikes, Justin Bieber’s bad behavior — and does so in an average of 4.7-character words.

Benchmark your readability

News for you The BBC makes the most serious news easy to understand with highly readable copy. Does your organization do the same? Image by Poster Boy

How does your copy’s readability compare to that of the world’s largest broadcast organization?

Benchmark readability

One way to find out is to benchmark readability statistics. That’s a great way to convince bosses, clients and reviewers that extremely readable copy makes sense, even for serious messages.

We used Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics to measure how the BBC’s readability stacks up. We reviewed every story (23, including the top 10 most read) on the home page on July 27.

Here’s what we found out … and how you can improve readability of your own pieces.

1. Aim for 40-word paragraphs on average. Readers skip long paragraphs, because they look hard to read.

BBC: The BBC’s paragraphs weigh in at an average of just 24 words, or 1.4 sentences. See how easy this 21-word paragraph looks — and is — to process:

Ms. Martínez says her mother and paternal grandmother both told her at an early age that Dalí was her real father.

— “Dali’s moustache ‘intact at 10 past 10,’ exhumation finds,” BBC News

2. Target 25 words in the lead paragraph. Short lead paragraphs invite readers in.

BBC: The BBC’s lead paragraphs average exactly 25 words. Write first paragraphs that go down easy like this 21-word lead from the BBC:

This weekend people will celebrate Germany’s new law to allow equal marriage. But it is not necessarily “equal” for gay parents.

— “Gay Germans’ joy mixed with adoption angst,” BBC News

3. Strive for sentences of 14 words or less, on average. Make your sentences much longer, according to research by the American Press Institute, and readers will have trouble understanding your message.

BBC: The BBC’s sentences average 19 words — a little longer than our recommended average. Model the sentences from this piece, which averaged 13.7 words per sentence:

He had often seemed awkward and clumsy. Yet he also had a gentle side.

— “Sean Spicer: My hectic six months with White House spokesman,” BBC News

4. Choose words of 5 characters or less, on average. Longer words increase effort, which reduces readership, according to the creators of the Gunning-Fog index and other readability indexes.

BBC: The BBC averages 4.7 characters per word. This passage, for instance, weighs in at about 4.8 characters per word:

Cavalia was created in 2003 by one of the co-founders of Cirque de Soleil, and has been described as “equestrian ballet.” It has been performing in Beijing since April and even planned to build a permanent theatre in Hangzhou.

— “China holds Canadians ‘for smoking marijuana,’” BBC News

5. Seek 0% passive voice. Passive voice is always stuffy, rarely needed.

BBC: Of the 23 BBC articles we reviewed, only one had any passive voice. That gives the BBC an average .4% (that’s four-tenths of 1%) passive voice total. This passage, for instance, is free from passive voice:

It appears Wirapol tapped into this trend. He arrived in the poor North Eastern province of Sisaket in the early 2000s, establishing a monastery on donated land in the village of Ban Yang. But according to the sub-district head, Ittipol Nontha, few local people went to his temple, because they were too poor to offer the kind of donations he expected.

— “Thailand monks: Wirapol Sukphol case highlights country’s Buddhism crisis,” BBC News

6. Go for 50 or higher on the Flesch Reading Ease scale. This scale of 0 to 100 measures how easy your copy is to read. The higher the number, the better.

BBC: The BBC averages 52.4 on this readability scale. This passage hits 64.5 on the Flesch scale:

Luis wakes up every morning in a rickety wooden shack and spends his days, like the doctor, injecting other users. The fee is one dollar or one sixth of a heroin shot, and most people pay in heroin. Every six injections Luis can do a hit of his own. For 22 months he was clean, until his wife had a heart attack in the bath and drowned.

— “As an open-air heroin camp is closed, options narrow,” BBC News

7. Target 9th or lower on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. This index measures how hard your copy is to read.

BBC: The world news organization weighs in at 10.63. C’mon. You can do better. This passage, for instance, hits 6.4 on the Flesch-Kincaid scale:

In the past, your salary was published in a book. A list of everyone’s income, assets and the tax they had paid, could be found on a shelf in the public library. These days, the information is online, just a few keystrokes away.

— “Norway: The country where no salaries are secret,” BBC News

Benchmark readability

Benchmarking your copy’s readability can help you:

  • Convince approvers that — yes, even in your business — high readability is essential and achievable.
  • Set, measure and report standards for readable writing within your writing group.
  • Improve readability for your own copy.

What are you waiting for? Benchmark readability in business media, industry journals, your company communications — maybe even your competitors’.

Then, no matter how serious the material, aim for standards that will help you get the word out to the most people.

Just like the BBC does.

  • Be Clear

    Measurably boost readability with our targets, tips & tools

    Is your copy easy to read? According to communication experts, that’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece — or toss it.

    Be Clear in Denver

    Fortunately, academics have tested and quantified what makes copy easy to read. Unfortunately, that research virtually never makes it out of the ivory tower and into the hands of writers who could actually apply it.

    Increase clarity by 200%, 300% — even 1,200% or more.

    At Catch Your Readers — our two-day hands-on persuasive-writing master class on May 1-2 in Denver — you’ll leave this session with readability targets to hit to reach all of your audience members, tools to measure your copy’s readability and techniques for hitting those targets. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Apply a six-step system for making every piece you write clearer and more concise.
    • Use a cool tool (you probably already have it, but you might not know it) to measurably improve your message’s readability.
    • Drastically condense your copy using the fastest, most effective approach. (The way we do it every day takes far more time and makes your message less interesting.)
    • Hit the right targets. How long is too long for your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?
    • Increase reading by hitting one key on your keyboard more often.


2 Responses to “Benchmark readability against the BBC”
  1. Vincent R. Tocci says:

    Anne…Thank You for publishing these tips on readability. I have been using a different set to teach my US Air Force and American University students readability statistics and they do work.

    If only students and professional writers would use them.



  2. annwylie says:

    Hi Vince, I’d love to see yours. Keep up the good work! We’ll make a dent!

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