Are You Pushing Your Readers Away?
BY: DAVID LEONHARDT ON TUESDAY, APRIL 15, 2014
It's funny how normal people, folks you could easily chat with about almost anything over a coffee or a beer, can sound pompous or nerdy as soon as they start writing for their business.
This might be happening to you, and you might not even realize it. And it might be hurting your bottom line.
Many people take on a whole new persona when they write for business. They stop thinking like themselves and they try to think "business" when choosing their words. The problem is that the reader is not thinking like a business; the reader is thinking like himself. Yes, even in B2B communications, the reader is still a human. If the Robot Apocalypse occurs, I shall revise my advice.
Why Does This Matter?
At some point during this article, you might be tempted to think something along these lines: "If I can write it, I am sure my readers can read it." However, that is a moot point. That is like saying, "If I can get along with my neighbor, countries can get along, too."
What is the goal of your business writing, of your letters, reports, pamphlets, website, blog or other business communications?
A) To write.
B) To know that your audience is capable of reading what you write.
C) To get your audience to actually read what you write.
D) To get your audience to understand what you write.
E) To get your audience to take action.
The goal of this article is to help you move your business communications further from A and closer to E. It does not matter that your audience is capable of reading what you write if they choose not to. Or if the message doesn't sink in.
Three Types of Words to Avoid
There are three types of words that get entrepreneurs into trouble when writing. Although you can't avoid them completely, you might be able to reduce your use of these words. That would make it easier for your audience to understand what you are saying.
The first type of word is sesquipedalian. That means words with too many syllables, literally foot-and-a-half-long words. A long word makes people slow down to process it and that makes them lose their rhythm. Every time a long word appears in your text, you risk losing your reader.
It is true that if your audience is composed primarily of university professors, your readers will be capable of reading longer words than if your audience is the cleaning staff. But longer words will still slow them down and make your message less likely to get through. Remember that your focus should not be on whether your audience is capable of reading what you write, but whether they will.
A good rule of thumb is to write for someone below grade nine. If you think that sounds like you would be writing "dumb", consider these facts:
- Check your insurance policy. Many states require that such documents be written at a level no higher than grade nine.
- Despite the need to use big words like sesquipedalian several times in this article, I wrote this at a grade 5.9 level.
Reading ease is not just about the syllable count; it is also about the length of sentences and of paragraphs. For today, let's focus on the words. We can leave the rest for another time.
The second type of word is obscure. "Sesquipedalian" is itself the perfect example of a word to avoid. It is not only long but also not well known. An obscure word forces readers to stop and that makes them lose their rhythm or to surf over it. In either case, they disengage their minds from your message.
The third type of word is an acronym. Some acronyms are well known, such as the IRS. But this is the exception. More acronyms are like CFAAHP or RYAA, a total mystery to anyone outside a small select group.
What if you are writing only to a certain group? If, for example, you are writing notes about an organization meeting, you might be safe just using the group's acronym. Or if you are writing for people in a certain location and everyone there knows the acronym, then you might be safe. But what happens when your report or pamphlet or article is passed beyond that circle? Maybe you don't care. But maybe you should. That's your call, of course, so long as you have given it some thought.
Even using as common a term as "IRS" out of context can pose a problem. Here is a list of all the different meanings that a reader might attribute to "IRS". If ten percent of your audience is foreign, you might be confusing them. Or if some of your audience works with insulin, they might think IRS is one of the insulin-related meanings. So pay attention to context and make sure that your meaning is clear.
Three Ways These Words Lose Your Readers
If you want to understand why long words, obscure words and acronyms lose readers, here are three ways they do.
- They slow down the reader's rhythm. Anytime that a reader has to think about what a word is or what it means, he is not thinking about your message. The more he has to pay attention to the words, the less he pays attention to the message...and the easier it will be for the reader to just put down your pamphlet or click to another website.
- They stop the reader. If the reader does not know the word, he has to stop to look it up or read back to try to figure it out from the context. If your reader stops, you have given him an occasion to put your message aside. You might as well just rename your article or letter "Don't read this!"
- They hand your reader a surf board. It might be that your reader has very little choice but to read your document. He might be a captive audience. That doesn't mean he has to read it well. When faced with complex writing and tough words, even college professors have been known to surf over the content and fail to absorb the meaning. Yes, they might be capable of reading more complex text, but unless highly motivated to do so, they probably won't.
Is There a Time and Place for Big Words?
Sometimes only a big word will do for clarity. Use that word. Clarity must come first, especially in business communications.
There is even a time and place for acronyms. For instance, instead of repeating "The Main Street Business Action Committee" 19 times in a report, you can use "The Committee" or "MSBAC".
Ah, I just advised using an acronym. What gives?
First, I don't advise using an acronym. I actually prefer "The Committee", unless you need to mention more than one. If you choose either "The Committee" or "MSBAC" in this sort of situation, make sure it is well-defined the very first time you use it. So "The Main Street Business Action Committee (The Committee)", and possibly bold it so that somebody reading further along can easily flip back and find what "The Committee" means.
Business writing is not easy. That is why many small businesses turn to freelance writers like those on our team. We can take the time to fiddle with words, while you focus on your message. The words you choose are important, because they not only define your message, but also whether your audience reads and understands your message.
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