I spend a lot of time with professional communicators. And if I ask them what they majored in, most answer public relations, communications or English.
As a recovering English major myself, I know what the problem is. Those of us who grew up enjoying reading and writing have trouble understanding the majority of the population for whom reading is a chore.
For most people, a perfect vacation is not a beach and a book. They don't include "read Anna Karenina" on their "100 Things to Do Before I Die" list, they don't care about "increasing their word power," and they don't go around bemoaning the death of literacy.
Words are just tools to most people--not something to craft, argue over, or negotiate approval of.
And, sorry, Mr. Ness (my high school English teacher whose idea of fun was reading The Magic Mountain), the problem is getting worse.
As the Washington Post reports, "The share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004, according to the American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"In 2004, roughly 28 percent of Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day. Last year, the figure was about 19 percent," reports the Post. "That steep drop means that aggregate reading time among Americans has fallen, from an average of 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017."
What can writers do about the fact that our audience members don't want to read? First, get over ourselves. Next, improve our communication to become more readable--more accessible and attractive--by doing these two things:
1. Keep it short. This means:
- Narrowing your focus to just one concept. Answer the question: "What is the one thing I want my audience to know/do?"
- Setting strict guidelines for length--and stick to them. The average USA Today article is 300 words. Procter & Gamble, the big consumer products company, limits the length of emails. The best web sites restrict home page items to 100 words.
- Crafting your sentences to be direct and brief, and your paragraphs to be an easy-to-scan collection of just a few sentences. Remember: sentences can consist of just one word. (Ouch!)
- Choosing short words. English is a gnarly language with a lot of words to choose from, writes Bill Bryon, in The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. But the simplest words in English stem from the Anglo-Saxons--those direct, no-nonsense people. Writes Bryson, the words that survive from Anglo-Saxon "are among the most fundamental words in English: man, wife, child, brother, sister, live, fight, love, drink, sleep, eat, horse and so on. To this day, we have an almost instinctive preference for the older Anglo-Saxon phrases" because those words are short and direct.
2. Make it simple. This means:
- Using only words and terms that are familiar to the largest percentage of your audience. If there's even the slightest possibility that a word might be unfamiliar, define it. Don't worry about insulting the people who know what the term means--if you routinely use definitions, the audience will see that it's just the helpful way you do things.
- Avoiding jargon, technical or scientific language or "corporate speak" (that stiff, lawyer-sounding, big-word-laden nonsense you find in annual reports). If someone insists that you use this junk, move it way down in your content, after you've included clear headlines, a nice short summary, break heads, sidebars and other chunked content.
- Identifying people, places and things. Tell us that Bill Bryson (the author we quoted above) is best known for his travel narratives, A Walk in the Woods and In A Sunburned Country, that Springfield, where the Simpsons live, is a city in Illinois (maybe) and that LED stands for "light emitting diode" and is a type of high-energy light bulb.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Be sincere, be brief and be seated."