Readability: Deliver a Clearer Message

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Readability Statistics for this Post

By Ricky Brandt

In the public relations industry, we’re always trying to target our message—which necessarily implies that some messages will be written with complex wording, while others will have a very laid back feel.  Sometimes our writing requires the use of sophisticated vocabulary, while others should be as simple as possible.  In 1948, Rudolph Flesch developed the Flesch Reading Ease Scale, which made it possible for writers to take an objective look at their writing and judge its complexity.  The U.S. Navy has been using it since 1975 to deliver clearer written commands.  Further research created the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Scale, which allows writers to see the grade level that corresponds with their Reading Ease score.  Today, these scales have even been integrated into Microsoft Word, which is why I am only focusing on these measures as opposed to other readability tests.  These measurement systems can be invaluable to PR professionals, but, like all things, they have their flaws.

 

The Math Behind Readability

While we could brainstorm a number of objective measures related to words or sentence structure, when it comes to readability, less is more.  Instead of laboriously calculating a number of statistics, Flesch only measures the average sentence length (ASL) and average number of syllables per word (ASW).  The formula will give you a score from 0 to 100.  One hundred is considered to be very easy, while zero is very complex.  Anything from 60-70 is written in “plain English.”  Most college students are expected to read below 40.

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Making Readability Work For You

Measuring readability is not a replacement for abiding to important writing conventions.  Therefore, you should only use it in combination with your other proof reading tactics, for feedback, and to track your progress.  For example, the Flesch scale can be a great way to measure if your writing is getting way over the head of your intended audience, or is coming off more simplistic than you intended.  Imagine writing a business letter that scored 26, or a Facebook description that scored an 83!  No one would take you seriously because your writing would not be appropriate to the medium.  Facebook posts should be easier to understand than business letters, because they are read differently.  Additionally, using readability scores to measure your writing will show your improvement over time and give you the confidence you need in order to write.   

The Pitfalls of Readability

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At its core, readability measurements are exactly what they sound like: measures of how readable your content is.  It cannot tell you anything about your content.  For example, the sentence “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” will score the exact same as the sentence “the dog brown lazy jumped fox over the quick“.  Further, you could score an easy 80, which would be understood by an average 11 year-old, while your paper discusses the intricacies of nuclear physics- it just depends on the words you used. In short, readability is not a replacement for proofreading. Like most things in life, the system can be beaten. But despite these shortcomings, readability tests can still improve the effectiveness of your writing. 

 

 Follow Ricky Brandt on Twitter- @RickBrandt18

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7 Reasons a Journalism Major Will Make You Successful in PR

By Colleen Kennedy

When I started college, I knew journalism was the major for me – I wanted to work at a newspaper. However, after taking one of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s public relations courses, I quickly changed my career path.

Since then, I’ve often debated the pros and cons of being a journalism major with students who attend universities that offer a public relations major. When they talked about their various PR courses, I was jealous. But now, four years later, I’m happy for the solid foundation my journalism major gave me as I embark on my post-grad internship at a public relations agency.

Here are 7 ways being a journalist has benefited me as a young PR professional:

Writing concisely and factually—When reporters read media pitches, they want the facts written in an interesting, yet factual way. A background in journalism teaches you how to place important and compelling information in your lead. Additionally, people’s attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter—and they don’t want to read lengthy pieces.

Learning how to edit copy and use AP Style—Employers constantly discuss how many candidates’ resumes are not given a second look due to typos or grammatical errors. The same is true for public relations writing: Why would a customer trust your company or brand when your writing has errors? Also, being familiar with AP Style will help you write press releases that reporters want to use.

•  Knowing the importance of accuracy and ethics—During my reporting classes, we learned the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics. With public relations scandals hitting the news frequently, defining the ethics of PR is an important issue facing the industry. Thanks to a familiarity with journalism ethics and media law, you will be one step ahead of your peers.

Being observant and knowing what makes a good story—Good journalists know the elements of a compelling story. This skill will help in public relations, because your media pitches and your news releases must be compelling. Being observant and able to gather facts to make a good story will help you write on topics that will interest reporters.

Learning how the media operates and what reporters’ needs are—After taking several journalism classes, I decided to spend a summer working at a newspaper, The Daily Iowan. While working in the newsroom, I learned the process of generating story ideas, and what information reporters need before agreeing to write a story. Now, as a PR professional, I can use my understanding of the reporting process to pitch to reporters effectively. I know that reporters need sources and are looking for different, creative stories.

Gaining the habit of reading global, national and local news—In my first SJMC class, Reporting and Writing, we had weekly quizzes on the New York Times and our local newspaper, The Daily Iowan. After the quizzes, I quickly got into the habit of reading both news outlets, as well as The Wall Street Journal. If you work in public relations, knowing what news is happening – and how you can use the news to help your client or company – is essential.

Writing in different formats and styles—In public relations, you can go from pitching media to writing a white paper to creating a media kit. Your writing must be adaptable.  First semester of my senior year, I took a course about blogging. I’ve also taken classes on reporting, writing for PR, and many others. The variety has helped strengthen my writing and made it adaptable – a skill that will help me greatly when I write for different clients at a PR agency.

Follow Colleen on Twitter @colleenrkennedy