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Two numbers that can make or break your marketing

Who’s read Atlas Shrugged?  Raise your hands.  It’s a great book.  It is a little intimidating though.  All of 1200 pages.  Nearly 4 pounds (and that’s the paperback!)  Lots of long sentences in long paragraphs on densely packed pages of words.  (It definitely ain’t Dan Brown.)

Just reading something like Atlas Shrugged is a challenge unto itself.  (Personally, I think it’s worth the effort.)

But here’s a little secret, I’d have enjoyed it just as much even if it weren’t such a challenge.  Frankly I think reading should be enjoyable – not a chore.  Life’s tough enough.  And that brings me to the topic of today’s little essay. The readability of your marketing content.

Readability is an often overlooked aspect of your writing.  Overlooked, and potentially very dangerous.  Let me explain.

Why it’s so damned important to

make sure your marketing is readable

There are a lot of theories.  I have my own.

Namely, self-preservation.

I’m serious.  The human body is geared for self preservation.  Over-exerting at anything runs a bit counter to the way our DNA is programmed.  Our bodies always look for ways to be efficient. That includes our brains.

Today, we’re all under a constant assault of information so that self-defense mechanism is doing double duty.

Making sure that your message is easily digested is essential to making sure it gets read at all.

When you’re delivering a message to your flock or your prospects, you have to consider two things to.  You have to make sure your message and ideas are clearly defined.  And you have to make sure the words you use are easily understood.  One impacts the other.

If your writing style is too challenging, too difficult to understand, that eats up a lot of brain power on the part of your reader.  Brain power they’d otherwise be using to consider and comprehend (and hopefully agree with) your message.  Make it too hard to read, and your prospect may not even finish reading your message.

Think about the last time you read a paragraph on a “how to” website or in a manual of some sort and had to go back and re-read it because you didn’t get what it was explaining.  That’s the effect of bad readability.

People won’t go back and read something twice.  And they won’t assume that trite, hackneyed language actually means something.

So what can you do?

Test your stuff

Maybe you’re aware of this or maybe not, but there are tests you can perform on your copy that can determine its readability.

I’m not going to go into all the mathematics of these indexes.  Not important and I don’t like math.  But I will tell you about the two most popular.

There’s the Gunning Fog index.

It was developed in 1952 by a businessman named Robert Gunning.  Essentially it estimates the number of years of formal education necessary to understand something on a first reading.

Now just because your prospect has an MBA doesn’t mean you can go up to 21.  (I have 16 years of formal education and sometimes get worn out reading the cereal box.)  A rating of 12 is considered understandable by a high school senior.  Anything below that is considered easily accessible.  Anything that requires “near universal” understanding should rate an 8 or less.

As an example, let’s do a rundown on my last blog post, Babe Ruth, the Supreme Court and Your Personal Brand.

Gunning Fog Score: 8.31 – Woo Hoo!

Then there’s the Flesch/Kincaid.

These tests were formulated by readability expert Rudolph Flesch.  This marvel offers two results — grade level and reading ease.  Grade level is pretty self-explanatory. Like the Gunning Fog Index, you want to keep your grade level to 8-and-change or below.

The reading ease index is a scale of 0-100 that measures… well, how readable your content is.  A score of 90-100 is easily understandable by the average 11-year old. 60-70 ranks in the 13-15-year-old range.  And 0-30 requires a graduate level intellect.

Let’s look at that same blog post.  Flesch Reading Ease: 74.34.  Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 4.59.   Double Woo Hoo!

For the record, Flesch identified 65 as a “plain English” score.  Readers Digest ranks about 65.  Time Magazine comes in about 52. The Harvard Law review comes in at the low 30s.

As always, a word of warning. . .

Just because your copy is readable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clear.

The first readability study was created in response to junior high school science teachers in search of books that would let them teach science and not have to teach “scientific language.”  Important distinction.

Important, important, important.  (That fragment is gonna cost me.)

These tests only measure the readability of your copy.  That’s it.  How hard the words are to understand.

They don’t judge how complex your ideas are.  They don’t factor in any kind of bias. They don’t check appropriateness of the message to the audience. Don’t check the structure of your content or the logic of your argument.

These are things you have to do yourself.  But understand, the better the readability of your copy, the bigger the edge you’ll have in the other regards.

At my last gig with a huge financial publisher, they did a study.  The best performing newsletters all rated more readable.

The content that got the most clicks, that was opened (and presumably read) most frequently and regularly — the stuff that that got unsubscribed the least — was the copy that rated above 62 on the Flesch reading ease index and below 9 on the grade level scale.

Tools you can use

Microsoft Word actually has a built in readability statistics. (Personally I’m a Mac guy and don’t use Word, but you can find out how to access that feature here.

Here’s an awesome tool you can download (free) and run all your copy through.  Gives you all the essentials.

There are even online tools you can use.  This is one that lets you past your copy into their site and does the calculations for you.  It even offers ideas where your copy can be improved.

And if you want to do a review of your web content, just paste the URL of your page in here and all the answers are yours.

Do a review of the content you send out.  You may be surprised at what you see.  Make the information you deliver more readable.  Revise your marketing until it rates below 65 and 9 on the respective scales.  Your clients and prospects will be looking forward to hearing from you.  And your marketing message will have that much more impact.