By Cathy Moore
Probably everyone on your team agrees that elearning should be concise and lively. But does everyone agree on what “concise and lively” looks like? Here’s one way to get everyone on the same stylistic page. (This is an update of a classic post.)
When we talk about writing style, we can get bogged down in personal preferences that are hard to communicate. But if we use readability statistics to quantify style, it’s easier to guide writers.
I’m not talking about the nearly useless “ninth-grade reading level” requirement in your corporate style guide. Instead, let’s look at the Reading Ease measurement that’s part of Word’s readability check. It’s a much more practical guide, especially if you compare your score with that of familiar publications.
What does this chart tell us?
Want to be popular? Aim for a high score.
The highest-circulation magazines tend to have the highest readability scores. Coincidence? I think not!
Instructions can be short and lively
I included Better Homes and Gardens and Family Handyman because they cover a lot of the same territory that elearning does: they motivate you to make a change and tell you how to do it. They also manage to get a high readability score while using terms like “oakleaf hydrangea” and “personalized wrench.”
What score should you aim for?
Many plain-English advocates suggest aiming for a score in the 60s, and that’s my preference, too (this blog post gets a 63). I’ll settle for the 50s if necessary.
Unfortunately, a lot of elearning ends up in the 40-something “Suits” category, thanks to corporate drone.
De-drone to improve your score and motivate learners
The reading ease formula considers sentence length and the number of syllables in words, so short sentences with short words score better. But changing your style to get a higher score can also have a profound effect on how the reader feels about you. Here’s an example.
It is expected that all employees will strive to achieve the highest standards of customer service, as service excellence is a competitive differentiator in the market and improving customer service is key to the Firm’s strength as a business. To that end, this course demonstrates the six-step Customer Delightification process which…
Our competition does a pretty good job of customer service. But soon they’ll find out that “pretty good” isn’t good enough, because we’re going to do better. This course will give you …
We stopped talking around the issue and stated it directly, the way our CEO might say it. And by using “we” and “you,” we made clear that we’re human beings in a conversation, not robots issuing edicts. These changes also improved our reading ease score by a bajillion percent.
Quick ways to increase your score and sound like a human being
- Say “you” and “we.”
- Cut 98% of adjectives and adverbs.
- Write active sentences that make clear who does what.
- Use strong verbs instead of wimpy “is.”
- Look for tacked-on clauses (“blah blah, which…” “blah blah, because…”). Turn them into standalone sentences.
How to check your score in Word
The readability check is part of Word’s spelling and grammar check. So, check your spelling. If you don’t see a window with readability statistics, you need to turn on the feature:
- Open Options and then Proofing.
- Find the section titled “When correcting spelling and grammar…”
- Check the box next to “Show readability statistics.”
- Check your spelling. You should see the readability results.
Be sure to check a big chunk of text–500 words or more. Short snippets give unreliable results.
Check both on-screen text and narration scripts. All the text associated with your material should be concise, easy to understand, and direct. A lot of narration sounds dull and de-motivating because it’s coming from the “Suits” category. (And do you really need narration?)
Why not use grade level?
- Grade-level statistics have too much baggage. People worry about offending their audience by writing “below” their educational level. For example, a stakeholder could say, “Our learners all finished college. Therefore, we should write at grade 16. Writing lower than that dumbs down the material.” Using the reading ease score and keeping the conversation focused on magazines read by adults avoids these issues.
- Grade levels aren’t global. “Seventh grade” means different things in different cultures, while the reading ease score isn’t tied to the US educational system. You can really localize the process by determining the reading ease scores of local magazines and comparing your materials to them.