Improve your fact-to-fluff ratio

Aim for a 1:1 proportion

Readers are busy. Fluff takes space. Space takes time. So let’s cut the fluff and get on with it.

Improve your fact-to-fluff ratio

Too much fluff? Balance it with fact. Image by Toni Cuenca

To cut the fluff, aim for a fact-to-fluff ratio of at least 1:1.

How do you find your ratio?

Pass the yellow highlighter/red pen test.

Try this test:

  1. Highlight all your abstract claims, ideas and concepts with a yellow highlighter.
  2. Underline all your concrete evidence — fun facts, juicy details, examples, anecdotes, case studies, statistics and so forth — with a red pen.

What should your copy look like? At least as much red as yellow.

Remember what Texans say about people who are “all hat, no cattle.” Too many pieces of corporate webpages are just that — puffy, overblown chest pounding with little solid evidence to back up the claims. Click To Tweet

What does most corporate web copy look like? A sea of yellow broken only by the occasional speck of red.

To improve your ratio:

  1. Increase fact. Add “proof” in the form of hard evidence — statistics, analogies, facts, examples, stories, testimonials — to all your claims.
  2. Reduce fluff. Cut hyperbole, adjectives, adverbs and other puffy prose. Strip your copy of “marketingese.”

Here’s how:

1. Increase fact.

What convinces people to do business with your website? According to research by the Nielsen Norman Group, it’s facts, not fluff:

  1. Level of detail: 41%
  2. Layout: 16.7%
  3. Visual design: 14.5%
  4. Features: 8.2%
  5. Tone: 6.8%
  6. Deals: 4.4%
  7. Price: 3.8%
  8. Can’t be classified: 2.7%
  9. Brand: 1.9%

“Visitors overwhelmingly prefer detail. But they don’t want to be overwhelmed by it,” says Kate Meyer, user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group.

If your webpage is seriously lacking in the kind of detail that makes visitors want to work with you, increase fact.

Make like a lawyer. Prove your claims. Dig up concrete details — numbers, comparisons, examples and third-party testimonials, for instance — to prove your assertions.

Remember what Texans say about people who are “all hat, no cattle.” Too many pieces of corporate webpages are just that — puffy, overblown chest pounding with little solid evidence to back up the claims.

Don’t let that describe your webpage.

2. Reduce fluff.

The second way to improve your fact-to-fluff ratio: Reduce fluff.

“The more florid the descriptions, the more users tune them out and go elsewhere. Sadly, the web is so smothered in vaporous content and intangible verbiage that users simply skip over it.” — Jakob Neilsen, principal, Nielsen Norman Group Click To Tweet

Cut hyperbole, adjectives, adverbs and other puffy prose. Strip out “marketingese.”

This promotional language reduces reading, according to Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen, in How People Read on the Web.

So:

  • Cut hyperbole. Minimize modifiers.
  • Avoid marketingese and other empty, puffy prose.
  • Present information without exaggeration, subjective claims, or boasting.

That’s important.

“The more florid the descriptions, the more users tune them out and go elsewhere. Sadly, the web is so smothered in vaporous content and intangible verbiage that users simply skip over it,” writes Jakob Neilsen, principal, Nielsen Norman Group.

“The more bad writing you push on your users, the more you train them to disregard your message. Useless content doesn’t just annoy people; it’s a leading cause of lost sales.”

  • Cut Through the Clutter

    Measure, monitor and manage clarity with a cool (free!) tool

    Would your message be twice as good if it were half as long? The research says yes: The shorter your piece, the more likely readers are to read your message, understand it and make good decisions based on it.

    Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's clear-writing workshop on April 17-18 in New York

    But most communicators (and, let’s be fair, their reviewers) ignore the research and keep piling on the paragraphs. The result? “You’re not more informed,” writes Tom Rosenstiel, former media critic for the Los Angeles Times. “You’re just numbed.”

    Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics and leave with targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.

    So how long is too long? What’s the right length for your piece? Your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?

    At Cut Through the Clutter — our two-day hands-on clear-writing master class on April 17-18 in New York — you’ll run your message through a cool (free!) tool to measure, monitor and manage readability. You'll find out how to:

    • Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics — and leave with quantifiable targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.
    • Increase reading, understanding and sharing with five techniques for cutting your copy significantly.
    • Avoid discombobulating readers. Leave this workshop with 11 metrics for reducing sentence length and increasing comprehension.
    • Stop getting skipped. Find out how long is too long — and leave with three ways to shorten paragraphs.
    • Eliminate multisyllabic pileups from your copy. They’re the No. 1 predictor of poor readability.

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