Biz Tips: Debunking the Myth of Professional Language

Biz Tips: Debunking the Myth of Professional Language

Biz Tip:

Debunking the Myth of Professional Language

Many freelance writers will have a similar horror story they tell after one-too-many whiskeys; a tale of that B2B client who insisted on correcting their well-crafted copy to include words like “strategic”, “leverage” and “utilise”, while smothering the rest with caveats and legalese.

Suddenly, what began as a simple and fun promotion ended up reading like a contract for a dodgy time-share in Málaga.

“We think this sounds more professional,” the feedback says.

The only reason they think these changes make the copy sound more professional is because so many other big businesses make the same mistakes. Similar bad writing and corporate language is everywhere. As a result, some brands – or at least some managers within them – embrace this kind of language as a way of signalling they’re part of the same corporate club. Apparently, this is how professional businesses are supposed to sound.

Professional writers know different.

Good writing isn’t filled with buzzwords and cliches. Good writing isn’t characterised by complex sentence structures and overly formal or academic language.

Good writing, effective writing, professional writing is easy to read and easy to understand. After all, the goal of any sentence is to convey an idea, a message, a snippet of information into the mind of the reader as cleanly and unambiguously as possible. Anything that gets in the way of that goal – anything that makes the reading harder – means the writing is less efficient. To me, that seems rather un-professional.

Here’s a scary fact. The majority of people reading your website, content or other business comms might not read as well as you might assume. The average American reads at a level equivalent to a 7th or 8th grader, which means any business hoping to appeal to a wide cross section of the general public should aim their content towards a reading age of about 12-14.

The UK government goes even further, targeting the information on its websites at a reading age of 9.

However, not every industry needs its content to be understood by everyone. If your target audience consists of specialised technicians, you could probably raise that reading level a bit so the content can explore more complex ideas. And, of course, certain topics need to be written in a more formal or academic style to avoid oversimplification or ambiguity.

Even then, your content may be more successful if you default to an easier reading style whenever possible. Research conducted in 2012 found that more educated readers are more likely to prefer plain English content if it is available. While they can read at a higher level, they would still rather not.

So, even if your content is intended to be read by nuclear physicists, you might want to turn the reading difficulty down a notch or two.

No one likes to work harder than necessary – and that includes mental effort. If your content demands too much concentration from the reader, chances are they will put it aside until later – which never comes.

There are various methods you can use to check the readability of your writing. The most well-known is the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which is built into Microsoft Word. (Here’s how to enable it.)

WebFX also has a handy online readability test where you can check the readability of a webpage by entering the URL or check the score of any other content by dropping the raw text into the window.

For the record, this article has a Flesch-Kincaid score of 58 and should be easily understood by 16-year-olds.

Thank goodness I didn’t have to include any corporate guff about “moving the needle on best of breed customer engagement to realign our digital transformation in a …”

Oh. Bugger.

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