Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
May 2, 2012

To Reach Real Readers, Write Copy that Connects

Join Ann Wylie for her online training session, “Anatomy of a 2.0 Release: Write Releases That Get Posted on Portals, Help Google Find Your Site, Reach Readers Online and More,” on June 28, 2012 3–4 p.m. This public relations writing training sesssion is free to PRSA members. Register Now

Fourteen percent of Americans can’t read well enough to search for programs in a TV guide, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).

Meanwhile, more than four out of 10 Americans have basic or below-basic prose skills, according to the study. That means they can sign forms or compare ticket prices for two events. However, they have trouble finding places on a map or calculating the cost of office supplies from a catalog.

So how well are they reading your blog post, Web page or news release?

Rate readability

Americans, on average, don’t read very well, but PR pros do. We make the mistake of writing for ourselves instead of writing for the folks who we’re trying to contact.

To reach real readers:

Aim for 50 or higher on the Flesch Reading Ease scale
In 1946, lawyer, author and writing consultant Rudolph Flesch published the Flesch Reading Ease formula. This formula computes readability based on the average number of syllables per word and words per sentence. Scores range from 0 to 100. The higher your score is, the easier your copy is to read. Today, this is one of the most widely used readability tests. Flesch is used by The U.S. Department of Defense and many government agencies.

To get your score, use Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics or The Readability Test Tool. For readable copy, you want to hit 50 or above.

Do you think your topic is too complex to meet this mark? Think again. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, among others, consistently hit 50 on the Flesch scale.

Don’t like what you see? To raise your score, shorten your sentences and words.

Consider your reader
For some audiences, you want to make your writing even easier to understand. Here’s what you need to know about writing for certain audiences:

  • Health care consumers: More than one-quarter of Americans with physical or mental conditions have below-basic prose literacy, according to NAAL.
  • Seniors: One-third of Americans age 65 or older fall into the lowest level of prose literacy, according to NAAL.
  • Mobile users: Mobile screens cut understanding in half, according to 2011 research by R.I. Singh and colleagues from the University of Alberta. For these audiences, aim for 60 or higher on the Flesch scale.

One indicator to avoid: Don’t ask readers to rate their own literacy. Of the 40 million adults with the lowest level of reading skills on the NAAL test, only 29 percent said that they didn’t read English well and 34 percent said they didn’t write English well.

Copyright © 2012 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Public Relations Tactics.

Ann Wylie, president of Wylie Communications, serves as a PRSA writing trainer and presents writing workshops throughout the country. She is the author of more than a dozen learning tools, including “Writing for Social Media: How to Write Blog Postings, Tweets and Other Status Updates” and “Writing That Sells.”.

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