“I’ve learned that people have strong opinions on the quality of writing today, with almost everyone finding it deplorable. I’ve also come to realize that people are confused about what exactly they should deplore.”
— Steven Pinker
As a communications firm, we’ve had plenty of COVID-19 “Stay In Place” time to think about the fundamentals of writing and helping clients with best practices and reaching consensus quickly during these challenging times. Here are some thoughts on tools and best practices that work for us.
If you’ve ever managed a document review process with a few departments you know that “good writing” is definitely subjective (to be polite). Incorporating every reviewer’s particular style preferences into a document is a juggling (and oftentimes an internal political) act. While grammar has rules, there doesn’t seem to be any such authority to turn to for three of the most contentious areas in editing — jargon aka corporate-speak, long sentences, and long words. Books on writing will give you best practices — keep it short and simple — but there is no quantitative measure, no science, that shows how breaking this advice affects readability and comprehension.
Or so I thought. Thanks to COVID-19, I’ve had time to do some research and have found studies that directly address the cost of using jargon aka corporate-speak, long words and, long sentences. Moreover, there are apps and algorithms that allow you to qualitatively and quantitatively measure the readability of your writing.
Jargon aka Corporate Speak
Most editing disagreements over jargon, often referred to as corporate speak, are rooted in the Curse of Knowledge. The Curse says: If your company uses technical jargon consistently, over time that language will embed itself into your brain and your company culture. It is insidious and irresistible. Everyone will use it and they will assume everyone else that reads their marketing material does too.
They will say, “Well, our customers understand it.” That may or may not be true, but customers are not your only audience. Reporters, investors, institutional buyers, new customers, government regulators, and potential collaborators or employees likely won’t get it.
And that’s a bigger problem than you might think, according to a new study from The Ohio State University. The 650 study participants each read science stories on self-driving cars, surgical robots, and 3D bio-printing, according to Science Daily. Half of the group got stories with a lot of technical jargon, and the other half got stories with simple explanations.
Afterwards, they rated each paragraph on how easy it was to read. Both groups were general-interest audiences and, as expected, those reading jargon-heavy copy rated it as difficult to understand. But, when those same subjects found they could mouse over technical jargon and get the simple definition, it made no difference in their negative opinions of the articles.
“You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter — they already feel like this message isn’t for them,” said Hillary Shulman, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University. “The use of difficult, specialized words is a signal that tells people they don’t belong.”
Reading the three stories seemed to have a profound effect on how the two groups described their overall relationship with science. The group that had the jargon-free stories asserted that they liked science, considered themselves knowledgeable about science and, were “science kind of people.” The other half of the study group reported the opposite — they weren’t that interested or informed about science and they didn’t understand it very well.
Results from an earlier study, published in the journal Public Understanding of Science using the same 650 subjects was even more concerning. Those findings showed that technical jargon led people not to believe the science, according to Science Daily.
“When you have a difficult time processing the jargon, you start to counter-argue. You don’t like what you’re reading,” said Shulman. “But when it is easier to read, you are more persuaded and you’re more likely to support these technologies.”
Shulman’s research seems to show that using jargon risks alienating some key audiences, which intuitively makes sense — lots of people make fun of silly jargon. Yet, it persists. Why? The same reason people often use longer words when a shorter one will do: People think obscure and even incoherent language makes them sound smart.
Churchill said, “The short words are the best words and, the old words, when short, are best of all.” Here he is appealing to President Roosevelt for aid during WWII:
“Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long‐drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
Not everyone is a Churchill, but most people don’t use a lot of jargon when they talk casually with their peers and colleagues because they know it doesn’t sound credible. Yet, in the hundreds of presentations and media trainings I’ve done, getting people to speak in their natural voice is the most challenging thing we work on.
Many people, particularly scientists, engineers and doctors, think short words make their ideas sound too simple. Entrepreneurs especially want their ideas to sound “big” and often replace short words in communications to have a bigger impact. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy according to a much-cited 2005 paper, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.”
Lead author Dr. Danny Oppenheimer found that undergraduate students who used unnecessarily large words in abstracts, essays, and dissertations were judged by their peers to have lower intelligence and credibility than those that used short words.
“We can conclude one thing…write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent,” said Oppenheimer.
In addition to finding longer words inserted into your copy when you get it back from reviewers, you are also likely to also find longer sentences. If you read those sentences enough times they might make sense to you, but given today’s state of message overload, your readers probably won’t have the same patience.
The American Press Institute readability studies show the effect of sentence length on comprehension and it is startling. At 14 words readers understand more than 90 percent of what they are reading. At 43 words, comprehension drops to 10 percent. Here are the other results the institute found:
8 words or less — very easy to read.
11 words — easy to read
14 words — fairly easy. Readers understand more than 90 percent of what they are reading.
17 words — standard
21 words — fairly difficult
25 words — difficult
29 words — Very difficult
The research on the harmful effects of jargon/corporate speak, long sentences and long words on readability seems clear. But how can you apply these ideals to whatever you are working on now? There are numerous sites, such as WebFX , where you simply paste your copy and the algorithm delivers a variety of readability metrics. Here’s how this post scored on a few various measures:
· Six different “readability indices” gave it an 11th grade readability score, about a grade above the New York Times writing level.
· Number of sentences: 69
· Number of words: 1,235
· Average number of words per sentence 18.77. Keeping sentences short is a good discipline and improves your writing.
· Number of complex words: 181. A complex word is a root word (quick) and an affix (er) = quicker.
· Percentage of complex words: 15%
· Average syllables per word: 1.57
In summary — readability metrics provide a simple, objective way to judge writing quality. Rather than having to tell the CEO that his sentences are off-the-scale long and complicated, you can just point to the low score it gets on comprehension. Metrics resonate with the C-Suite.
Stay Safe, Wear a Mask!