What Jeff Bezos and trumps can teach us about saving lives
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Clear writing in plain English has never been more important. In fact, we learned this week that well-written content is a matter of life and death. Here’s why.
We spend a lot of time helping clients improve the readability of their copy. Yes, readability is a thing. You can measure it. And use it as a yardstick to improve your writing.
It is particularly important when writing for the web. Clear trumps clever every time. Why use one simple word when you can pad entire sentences with clunky, industry jargon and flowery nouns?
Because hardly any of your readers will understand what you’re trying to say, that’s why. Your message is lost. And all your hard work goes down the pan.
This really hits home when you consider the average reading age in Britain today is nine-years-old. It’s a stark warning for all those flashy writers out there.
If your copy can’t be understood by a kid in school Year 4, you are excluding around around half of the UK population. If you find that shocking, what are you going to do about it?
First, Amazon gave us an insight into their thinking on the subject. They accidentally sent one of their email templates to a customer (see below, in case you missed it).
This was packed with marketing best practice. It’s so good, it should be fast tracked onto the media studies curriculum.
But we were drawn to the words below the headline—the body copy. A masterclass in clear writing. Amazon pinched this passage from Gary Provost’s brilliant book, Make Every Word Count.
If you learn these lessons, then you will create convincing content that drives your reader to action. To buy your stuff. Or sign up to your newsletter. Or back your campaign.
Life and death
Hot on the heels of the Amazon email, we learned that the NHS are using the same clear, concise writing to inform the public.
Sara Wilcox, content designer for the NHS online, explained how this has helped build the largest health website in the UK, with 43million visits each month. Transforming countless lives.
She told Radio 4’s Word of Mouth: “We know that 4 out of 10 people struggle to read typical health information. The kind of information on a pill packet.
“And if you add numbers to that health information, it is about 6-in-10 people that struggle with it. So, there are certainly issues with health literacy.
“When people come to the NHS website, they are often worried. They might be in a bit of a panic. Or feeling woozy. They may actually be feeling very ill and struggling to think.
“And then, of course, for a lot of people English isn't their first language and there are a lot of people who struggle to read and write for other reasons. They may have dyslexia.
“We find that the most important thing for us is to make things easy to find and easy for people to do the right thing.”
That means using plain English. Talking about often complicated and distressing subjects in everyday language. Language that real people use.
Sara added: “It can be a mater of life and death. If people have poor health literacy it can have an impact on their health.
“We know that people who struggle to read health information are more likely to end up in A&E. They are likely to have more stays in hospital. They tend not to take up screening tests. They tend not to have their flu jabs.
“And at the end of the day they do tend to have shorter, less healthy lives.”
The NHS website doesn’t hide behind doctor’s jargon. Every word is weighed for its impact. This is the result of painstaking audience research—but sometimes it rubs people up the wrong way.
Sara said: “Whenever we produce new information on a new topic, we will try and get out and research it.
“We do pop-up testing, where we meet ordinary members of the public in a library. Sometimes we will go into a GP's surgery, or we get people to come into what we call a research lab.
“It’s a comfortable place where people can come in one-by-one and look at our web pages, information, or services. They talk us through what they feel and we get a sense of what they understand and what they don't understand.
“We do website surveys. And sometimes we look at the words people are looking for in Google. That is a very good indication of the language people use.
“All that gives us an idea of the kind of language people use and understand. ‘Pee’ and ‘poo’ is an interesting one. And it is a good example of the kinds of challenges that we face.
“We started using ‘pee’ and ‘poo’ years ago, because we thought it is simple language. But we soon started getting a lot of complaints.
“So, I looked at something like 10,000 website feedback survey responses. I was looking for people who were complaining about the language and people who were positive about it.
“And, although there were a lot of people complaining about words like ‘pee’ and ‘poo’, there were ten positive responses for every negative one.
“Most people preferred us being direct and clear and simple and straightforward. They thought we had pitched it about right…All our content is written with, and signed off by clinicians.”
Sara continued: “We also use ‘fart’. We have a page about flatulence and we use ‘flatulence’, but we explain that it is farting.
“And we tend to use ‘farting’, rather than ‘passing wind’ or ‘breaking wind’, as euphemisms like that can be quite difficult for people for whom English is not their first language.
“Passing wind is two simple words, but when you put them together some people don't understand what you're talking about.
“And when we did our research, everybody seemed to understand farting, even if they didn't like the word.”
Write for 9-year-olds
Sara concluded: “We find that the most important thing for us is to make things easy to find and easy for people to do the right thing.
“And get the care that they need our focus is very much on helping people get the right care at the right time…and we know that we get people with a whole range of literacy levels.
“The average reading age in the UK, I believe, is nine-years-old. And I know that a lot of the government websites in the UK aim for a reading age of nine.
“Now with medicine that is really difficult to hit a reading age of nine. As soon as you start putting in medical words such as multiple sclerosis, or Alzheimer's, you immediately push up the reading age.
“So, we say that we aim for a reading age of 11 to 14-years-old in terms of a reading age. It's difficult, but that's the kind of level that we're aiming at.”
Writing something simply does not mean dumbing down. It’s not easy. But the benefits for your business, or organisation, are huge.
To learn more about improving readability for your business content, drop us a line today. We’re happy to help. Now get writing.