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#54: How Clear Is Your Writing?

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Thursday, May 21, 2009
Our consultancy recently brought in a person to help us improve our writing. We weren't happy about spending the time. After all, we were senior consultants who wrote brilliantly. I can't remember the name but we put our reports and memos through an analysis that told us how clear our writing was (it turned out it wasn't very). Do you know what it was?

You are probably referring to any of several readability formulas. The most popular is Flesch-Kincaid, which looks at how many words in a sentence, how many letters per word, incidence of passive voice and other factors. Consultants, like many practitioners of many professions with specialized vocabularies, tend to puff up language when they write. It is hard to break this bad habit. We do this to explain a complicated concept, but this is when we should be focus on the simple and clear.

There are several tools for doing this kind of analysis. One that uses Flesch-Kincaid is embedded in MS Word, but some criticize it for poor implementation. You can use an alternative tool to analyze your text. This tool combines Flesh-Kincaid and other readability formulas to give an overall grade level for your writing.

Tip: Analyze a draft memo to your client with this tool to see just how clear (or not) you write. Use this like training wheels. You don't need to use it for every memo or report, but every once in a while would keep you attuned to improving your readability. After all, your primary goal is to communicate effectively, not impress anyone with your vocabulary.

For a bit of fun, look at the readability of Presidential inaugural speeches. President Obama's recent speech was at a 9th grade level, which is excellent for reaching citizens with an understandable message. I will leave you to make your own conclusions about this historical graph of readability over time.

P.S. Since you are probably thinking about it, this tip rated an average grade level of 9.84.

© 2009 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  communication  learning  writing 

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