What’s behind the Flesch Reading Ease Test?
Let’s take a step back and think of the bigger picture. Why do we go to such trouble to score content? Or make it readable? Simply because writing in plain language allows you to reach as many people as possible. Clear writing can also dramatically improve user experience – think of the negative impact jargon-laden banking terms or complex Medicare documentation can have. Finally, it makes sense, and it’s also the law. The Plain Writing Act came into force in 2010. It requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use. And while not mandated legally, regulators such as the SEC strongly advocate for clear language.
Experts suggest aiming for a score of 60 or higher when writing for the average American. Referring back to our scoreboard, we’re aiming for a Moby Dick level of understanding. That might sound easy. Moby Dick is a pretty challenging read, so firms should be able to pitch content at this level, right? We found the opposite to be true. Our research uncovered many industries creating content that is way above this benchmark. These include:
- Asset management
- US healthcare industry (specifically, Medicare documents)
- Retail banking
- Insurance industry
- Government agencies
You can see all of our research reports here.
“But all our customers are well-educated…”
Many organizations fall into the trap of believing that, as their industry deals with complex subject matter, communications must be difficult to understand. It’s an inevitable consequence of healthcare / finance / <<insert your own “complex industry” here>>. Or worse, they believe that their customers are too smart for plain language. That they’ll feel “spoken down” to. In fact, the opposite is true. The UK’s government website says it best: “the more educated a person is, and the more specialist their knowledge, the more they want it in plain English.” Make no mistake – it is possible, and crucial, to make content from all industries accessible to everyone. For so many reasons:
- We’re all pressured for time, and complex communications adds to our cognitive load.
- In complex industries such as healthcare and finance, it’s even more critical that readers understand the content. The subject matter is too important to miss any details.
- Communicating in plain language makes it less likely that customers will have follow-up questions. That saves time and money for both the business and customer.
Flesch is important… but it’s no silver bullet
Let’s not forget that the Flesch Reading Ease Test is just one measure of readability. It is, by no means, the only thing to check for in your content. Other crucial factors to consider are:
- Long sentence density
- Overuse of passive voice (much harder to process than active voice)
- Pronoun density
- Complex word density
- Use of jargon and industry acronyms
- Overuse of institutional language
Our VT Insights platform scans content for readability and also flags instances of the above. Writers and subject matter experts can score their own written content, ensuring that communications across the organization are clear, coherent and consistent.
But don’t forget the importance of great subject matter – something that no product or test will account for. Just because something is more readable doesn’t make it better or more appropriate. Refer back to our scoreboard from earlier on in the blog. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is pitched at a score of 90-100. Whereas the academic paper on chess is readable by college students, with a score of 30-50. That actually makes sense, more or less. It would be strange if a Young Adult Ficton (YA) novel was pitched at college level. Or an academic paper at 5th graders. However, health insurers creating Medicare content that’s harder to read than Moby Dick does not make sense. Over 70 years since Flesch developed his formula, it’s time to do better.See How You Could Improve Your Readability Score - Try VT Readability