Updated 1/23/19: Link to The Financial Brand study on grade level and readability of banking sites. Clearer explanations and simplified design. I also expanded upon the discussion topics to bring it home.

Kids Understand the Darnedest Things

We’re back on topic, with reading levels. Last time, we discussed what can be gained by writing in a fashion that everyone can understand (hint: a lot). Today, we are going to learn how to measure our writing, at what level we should aim, and why even bother.

Reading Levels: How to Measure?

There are many reading measurements, and each gives its answer as a number. With complex names such as “Raygor Estimate Graph, Flesch Reading Ease, and Spache Formula,” they sound pretty daunting. We’re not going to worry about their details. Just be aware they exist and can help us decide if others will understand what we wrote. So what do they measure? Each is different. They take into account things like:

  • Word length
  • Syllables per word
  • Words per sentence
  • Word complexity
  • Repetition of words/phrases

Writing for Middle Schoolers. Wait, what Reading Level?

This may surprise you, but the average American enjoys content at a 7-8th grade reading level. Not only is satisfaction higher, they also tend to understand it best, too.

Grade level is not a reflection of intelligence. We can write simple ideas at a high grade level, and complex ones at a low level. The latter is harder. Our goal when writing is to be understood. So getting rid of all that jargon (industry-specific words) and unneeded complexity is good.

After I complete a blog post, I scan it with reading level calculators to see how close to my goal it is. And since I want you to understand what I’ve written, my goal is 6-8th grade. I also aim for a reading ease of 60 or above. That’s a math-y way of saying, “the stuff is easy to read”.

Remember, simple writing lets you get across complicated ideas, simply. Going over your reader’s head is just bad form, and people tend to not trust what they don’t understand. You, like me, are trying to build trust and engagement. Making people suspicious of my motives because my writing is ridiculously complex would be a pretty terrible idea.

Feel free to check any of this blog’s entries in one of the calculators. Then, take a look at the level popular news sources and books are written. Time aims for 9th grade. The New York Times, 10th. John Grisham, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and many other bestsellers write at a 7th grade reading level.

Why Care About Reading Levels?

Alongside the rapid development and implementation of newly-fostered ideas, which serve to educate and inform a willing industry populace, technology has offered a template with which we can communicate our desires, strategies, and results so as to generate a loftier goal for all.

In a nutshell, that sentence is why. And, be honest. You’ve seen (or written) something like it in your company strategy sessions. Saying something in long statements, with big words, designed to make you sound “smart”, helps no one. It’s not smart. Here’s that same sentence, brought down to Earth:

We all have great ideas, and technology has made sharing them with others so much easier. Our industry is better due to your contribution.

Which was easier to understand?

  • The grade level estimate of the first sentence is a whopping 23. Who here graduated 23rd grade? It’s considered graduate level content, but, having done that, I can say it’s far beyond. And why? Reading ease, where higher is better, and 60+ is a good aim, scored 8.4.
  • The modified segment offered a grade level of 7.8 and a reading ease of 60.7. It’s not just you, the second selection is mathematically simpler to understand.

Don’t Take My Word For It!

Keep this in mind when you’re drafting new content for your website, newsletters, and mailed content. I’m not the only one to say it, either. The Financial Brand wrote an article on reading levels in the banking industry.

Turns out, regular people (ie. your members and general public) don’t understand what financial institution marketers are saying. Using the same writing tools I mentioned here, they found most banks wrote way, way above people’s heads. This hurts your business. Not only because people can’t understand (and thus tune it out), but they now don’t trust you!

If your writing is too complex, it’s the same as wasting half (or more) of your mailings. The same goes for visits to your website. Continue your learning journey and embrace reading level calculators. Now, go forth and compose!

For reference, this post has a Flesch Reading Ease (higher is better and 60+ is ideal) of 71.6. It’s written at an average grade level of 7. That means 11-13 year olds can understand it. And so can your members.