Ten Steps to Readable Communications
Updated: Aug 23, 2019
People are often unaware of the importance of readability. If our communications are not easily read and understood, though, we could lose a job or disappoint our clients. Success in the workplace completely depends on our ability to communicate clearly! Here are some research-proven ways to improve the chances of having your communications read:
1. Know your audience
Identify your reader’s critical success factors. Start out by asking this question: "What is most important to your reader? What do they NEED to know?"
Present technically accurate but clear and concise information. Just because the information is highly technical doesn’t mean it cannot be written and presented clearly and concisely.
Tailor your messages for various styles and personalities. Each professional background, personality, and learning style prefers to receive information in a different way. That’s why it’s helpful to use various techniques in presenting information. Make sure you cater to the engineering project manager as much as to the public involvement specialist or mayor.
2. Make it easy for your reader
Present information that stands out above all others. Help your reader understand your concepts by making it easy to read. Avoid meaningless words that waste space. Develop key themes and weave them throughout your materials. Keep it concise and to the point.
3. Consider how people read
People usually fall into one type: methodical readers or scanners, but both love color. Make your first two to three words count, because they might be all that scanners read. Use an inverted pyramid writing style, putting actionable content and your conclusion first, using familiar words and limiting capitalization. Meaningful subheadings and bulleted lists will help your reader even more.
In fact, writing coach Ann Wylie recommends you actually put your hand on your screen (or piece of paper)...and your hand should cover some kind of element that draws the eye--an image, a bullet, a highlight or pull quote, or a heading. Whether print or online, your audience reads a bit differently:
Print content. Readers enter a printed page through the largest image on the page, and most read the headline first...so make sure you take advantage of those. If you use pull quotes, make sure they contain the most important message on the page. And absolutely make sure they don’t have any typos!!
Online content. Most users won't scroll down the page and they only read 28 percent of the words on an average visit, so streamline content and help the reader find what's most critical. Use navigation and scannable content that follow the F-Shape pattern of reading. Insert animations and diagrams to explain complex processes. For online content, try to limit yourself to two to three sentences per paragraph. Animation should cycle and then stop, and extra white space will make it easier on the eye. Try to avoid underlined links, because they make readability difficult. Use descriptive language for your links instead of "click here.” Write strong calls to action and avoid the wordiness trap.
4. Choose effective typography
Readability research concludes that ragged-right margins are preferable to justified margins. The normal letter and word spacing minimize awkward hyphenation and provide the eye with a common starting point for each line.
Line length should be between 1.5 and 2 times the lowercase alphabet in the type and point size being used. Increasing the line spacing also tends to improve readability.
Readability is also enhanced by selecting common typefaces because they are versatile, readable, and immediately recognizable to most readers.
5. Avoid ALL CAPS!
This is the most frequently violated rule of readability. Upper- and lowercase words are easier to process and recognize, so sentence-case headings are the most readable. For optimum readability, avoid all caps even in headings and subheadings. All caps lead to higher levels of eyestrain and eye fatigue because there is too little differentiation between the letters, and the eye does not get a visual breather.
6. Consider vision deficiencies
I began researching readability after realizing how my eyes were aging. Many corporate templates use light gray, small text, and I struggle to read it at times, especially in print. We need to keep vision deficiencies in mind for readability, especially considering color blindness and aging.
Be careful with color: About 8 percent of men cannot differentiate between red and green. In addition, as people grow older, they are less able to discriminate between colors and contrasts. To increase readability, you should choose complementary colors and contrast the foreground and background. Darker text on a lighter background is more readable than light text on a dark background. Be careful in your use of red and green if you can. Don’t rely on color alone to communicate your messages. Graphic designers are trained in color combinations, so ask for help if you need it.
Consider aging eyesight. Around 15.1 percent of the population is over 65 years old, and in 30 years, that number is expected to double. So to aid in reading, choose legible fonts, aim for larger point sizes, and consider typeface differences. - Avoid using several types of fonts mixed together or very narrow or decorative fonts. Keeping to the most basic and common fonts may not seem very exciting, but it ensures that what you design is exactly what the users see. Drop shadows on text, often used to give words the appearance of depth, can also be difficult to decipher. - Use at least 12-point size when you can. Larger fonts are easier to read. For most seniors, 12 to 14 point fonts are recommended for body text while headlines and titles should be at least two points larger. - In print, serif typefaces are more legible because the serif adds differentiation between letter forms. However, in online text, this may not always be true. Many typefaces are available in light, narrow, bold, or extra bold. - While bold text may appear larger, its readability is decreased, so use bold for emphasis only.
7. Consider the eye's path
Use effective images. Readers love photos…especially good ones. Choose effective images and graphics that tell a story. Studies show that images are viewed more than text.
Use capitalization only when necessary. That means for proper names and places, not for job titles unless they precede the person's name. Too many capitals slow the reader down.
Consider what you want the reader to see first. Take advantage of your front matter to get key points across as concisely as possible. Use front matter like a teaser in a newspaper. Highlight key points and use bullets and headings to make it easier for your readers.
8. Consider the value of graphics
Your job as readability champions is to challenge graphics and text that are not readable or valuable to the reader. Most important, engage a great designer who understands readability.
Pitfalls to avoid:
Focus on what's most important. Don't let your team include everything.Don't turn off or distract your reader with an inadequate, complicated, or bad graphic.Don't make the reader work too hard to understand the graphic.Avoid distracting your presentation audience with moving text or animated images.
What you SHOULD do:
Use images to draw the eye, present information concisely, and reinforce your text or messages.
Make graphs, charts, or tables easy to understand.Ask “so what?” Does the graphic complement or demonstrate visually what you are trying to say?
Find compelling, high-quality, and high-resolution images that are on message. (And that you have permission to use them! I will cover copyright violations in an upcoming article.) Fewer large photos draw more attention than many small photos. Maps and explanatory graphics are viewed more than charts.
Help readers find what they need. Provide a map for your reader. Write compelling headlines and exhibit captions. Use feature-benefit captions for graphics and pull quotes.
9. Be concise
The best way to stand out above the chatter is to be simple and concise. The average person is exposed to 2,500 ads each day, or 150 ads per hour. Shorter—and organized in a logical fashion—is always more likely to be remembered and will boost readers’ understanding.Take pity on your readers, who have to sift through constant information. Here are a few tips:
Put conclusions at the beginning. Think of an inverted pyramid when you write. Get to the point in the first paragraph, then expand on it.
Use action words and use one idea per paragraph. Tell your readers what to do. Avoid passive voice. Keep the flow of your pages moving. Short, meaty paragraphs are better than long, rambling ones.
Cut out jargon, acronyms, and internal terms. Don't use terms that people outside your company or industry wouldn't understand. If you're not sure, check with someone who doesn't work in your industry or company. You'll be surprised! Use acronyms only when necessary for readability. Often they cut down on readability, are unnecessary or pompous, and slow down your reader. They make sense when organizations or terms are known more for their acronym than their full name (for example, the EPA).
Use bullet points instead of paragraphs. Bullet points are easier to scan than paragraphs, especially if you keep them short. This saves the reader time. Limit list items to seven words. Studies have shown that people can only reliably remember 7-10 things at a time. By keeping your list items short, it helps your reader remember them. In presentations, though, avoid "death by bullets." Slides with graphics and spare words are easier to remember and read.
Write short sentences. Sentences should be as concise as possible. Use only the words you need to get the essential information across. Avoid unnecessary words (such as very, extremely, etc.).
Include internal subheadings. Subheadings make text easier to scan. Your readers will move to the section of the document that is most useful for them, and visual cues make it easier for them to do this.
Focus on the “need to know.” Move anything that is “nice to know” to a hyperlink or an appendix to aid in brevity.
10. Enlist a reader
EVERYONE needs an editor...even other writers or editors. Make sure your materials are thoroughly edited and QC'd, because nothing distracts a careful reader more than a typo!
Ask a colleague to be your fresh set of eyes on everything you produce. I am extremely lucky to have a husband who is also a writer, and I've worked with many bright and talented writer/editor colleagues. I often ask them to provide “cold” content and readability reviews. The result is always (1) my communications improve dramatically with their feedback, or (2) I can rest assured I haven't made any errors.
This article is based on a presentation that won the APEX Grand Award and an Award of Excellence from the International Association of Business Communicators. The APEX judges commented, "An exemplar of how-to communication, in which clear, well-organized and informative copy gets the point across with liberal use of well-chosen visual examples. Really a first-rate effort, and worth bookmarking." Thanks to my graphic design colleagues Amy Norred and Sara Miller for helping me present this information.