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Website copy says more about your company than you think

Your corporate image will be hurt by beautiful, complicated language if you are leaving your users behind.

Using 8 formulas, Readability Consensus: Grade Level 21 Reading level: very difficult to read. Reader’s Age: College Graduate

A LinkedIn connection posted a critique of the following language in a press release. To protect the guilty, I have deleted the company name, exec’s name, and title as well as name of program. The readability assessment results in the image above (which I did at readabilityformulas.com) was for the unredacted version of the two paragraphs below.

<Company’s> new brand launch is a unifying framework for our seamless shopping experience that is designed to deepen our connection with customers and associates today and into the future, support our business transformation and provide an elevated creative approach,” said *person with two complicated titles*.

Still not sure what this is about? Trust me, you aren’t alone. The deleted information being present really wouldn’t add a whole lot of value. The press release went on to say:

<Company> chose <brandname> as our leading brand message because it is inclusive, clear and memorable and supports our vision of serving America through food inspiration and uplift.

Remind me again what is “inclusive” about language that requires 21 years of education to understand? This language is even more depressing when you think of food as something fundamental to the human experience that EVERYONE should have access to.

What are Readability Tests?

Readability calculations are formulae for evaluating the readability of text. Most readability calculations at one level or another count syllables, words, and sentences. Some readability calculations go a step further and look at use of:

  • verb tense, because passive tense is harder to understand
  • use of non-familiar words
  • use of negative words (not, can’t, won’t, contrary, excluding, etc.) because negative words require more analysis to make sure you are understanding the sentence in the way it was intended to be understood.

The above text has a 14th grade reading score. Anyone who is disabled, a non-native English speaker, or without at least two years of college education would be at risk of not understanding some part of that text.

What are Readability Tests (simplified)?

Reading scores tell you how hard it is to read something. Some reading scores count words and sentence parts. Other reading scores also look at verb tense and sentence complexity. It’s harder to understand and read text that has the words “not”, “can’t”, or “don’t” in them.

The above paragraph has a 6th grade reading score, within what is largely considered the reading range of most US adults, including English Language Learners.

What is wrong with complicated language?

Three different groups of people are impacted when a website uses unnecessarily complicated language:

  • People with disabilities. It’s not just language disabilities that are at play here. People with chronic pain, fatigue or concentration issues for any number of reasons are also going to struggle with more difficult-to-read text. That includes people with arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, ADHD and medication side-effects just to name a few. These groups represent about 20 % of the overall population.
  • English language learners. The less education you have either in your native language or in English, the less likely you are to comprehend something that is aimed at someone who is a native English speaker with 2 years of college education.
  • People in lower socioeconomic groups. This group can overlap with people with disabilities and English Language Learners. People in lower socioeconomic groups largely have less education, and aren’t likely to completely comprehend complicated language.

Is web page copy language different than written language elsewhere?

Not surprisingly, the answer is yes. The average reader skims web pages, looking for something in particular. And the more advanced the user, the more they skim. People reading web pages rarely consume more than 20 % of the text on that page. The harder the text to understand, the more likely it is the user will bounce to something more easily digestible.

COGA TF is coming

COGA TF is the Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force. COGA TF is a joint Task Force of the Accessible Platform Architectures (APA) Working Group and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (AG WG). It assists these Working Groups to produce techniques, understanding, and guidance documents, as well as updates to existing related W3C material that addresses the cognitive space. And complicated language definitely impacts those with cognitive disabilities.

Conclusion

Before you hit the “publish” button on your next great piece of web copy that could be read by thousands, review it with a “readability” critical eye:

  • break up sentences
  • make verb tenses easier to understand? Use present and future, instead of past perfect, for example. Getting rid of gerunds is also helpful in lowering readability scores
  • Swap out a multisyllable word for one more easily understood
  • Exchange words that require more advanced English knowledge for simpler words (buy instead of purchase, for example)

After you have made this pass, use one of the readily-available, free readability tests that are available online or integrated into many word processors (including word) to assess your readability score. There are many different readability scores, I personally use Flesch-Kincaid grade level score fairly consistently.

And lastly, compare your score with your audience? If your audience is IT professionals with a bachelors degree, a grade of 16 is probably fine. If it is people who buy things in stores, 6–8 is probably more appropriate.

But don’t be “that company” that thinks that flowery complicated language equates to a premium experience that people are willing to pay more for. Because in the end, all that approach does is exclude people who could potentially be customers.

and companies who intentionally exclude customers can’t be considered an inclusive organization, no matter what else they say. Actions always speak louder than words.

Published inAccessibilityDisabilitiesWriting and blogging

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