This is the second in a series of blogs to mark National Storytelling Week 2017, focused on the words companies and brands use to tell their stories.
When physicist Richard Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, he was asked if he could explain in just three minutes why he’d won the prize. In a rare misstep, Feynman is reputed to have answered: “If I could explain it in three minutes, it wouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize.” Anything can be explained top line – in an elevator pitch – in three minutes. It should be possible to explain it in a sentence and ideally in a phrase.
Business writing is very often far too complex and difficult to understand.
There are several simple measures of linguistic complexity. One of the most popular is the Flesch Kincaid (FK) ‘reading ease’ score. The FK score is based simply on the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word. FK scores typically range from 0 to 100, although there’s a sentence in Moby Dick that scores -146.77 and one in Proust that scores -515.10. Buzz Feed typically scores in the mid-90s, Cosmopolitan the mid-70s, the Guardian the mid-60s, The Economist the mid-40s, and the standard insurance policy about 10. Find out more.
The FK score is accompanied by a grade level. This represents the U.S. school grade a reader needs to have attained to be able to understand the text in question with ease.
Essentially, the longer the words and the longer the sentences, the harder they are to understand; to parse, as linguists say. Longer processing time of interminable sentences mean the start of these sentences fall out of working memory. This makes us fail to understand.
Technical topics based on scientific or medical breakthroughs are often full of technical terms. These are often polysyllabic words derived from Latin or Greek that go on for ages. String a few of those together and soon you’ve got an incomprehensible sentence.
Consider this effort from PsiOxus Therapeutics:
“EnAD has a number of genomic changes when compared to its parental virus, Ad11p, including a partial E3 region deletion, a smaller deletion in the E4 region, and a chimeric Ad3/Ad11p E2B region. These genomic changes result in a ~3kb reduction in genome size compared to Ad11p which provides significant capacity to ‘arm’ the EnAd genome with genes encoding therapeutic proteins that enhance EnAD anti-tumour activity. Taking advantage of this, we have developed a novel, efficient cloning system that enables rapid generation of modified EnAD viruses expressing one or several different therapeutic genes that should enhance anti-tumour activity of this oncolytic virus.” (FK 14.2)
Or this from DiscoverX:
“DiscoverX® is an innovative company that develops, manufactures, and commercializes reagents, complete cell-based assay kits, profiling and screening services as well as other turnkey solutions for the drug discovery, screening, and life science markets. Our biochemical and cell-based assays enable customers to improve research productivity and effectiveness of their screening, lead optimization and SAR campaigns, thus accelerating the discovery and development of new drugs. Plus, with the addition of the BioMAP® platform of human primary cell systems for phenotypic profiling, DiscoverX offers a powerful tool to deliver physiologically relevant insights and integrated solutions for all stages of discovery from target and lead discovery to preclinical and beyond.” (FK -5.5)
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are examples of technical, scientific-based businesses that are perfectly capable of explaining their products and services simply and effectively. In so doing, they open understanding to non-specialists. This broadens their appeal, reach and potential. As a measure of relative linguistic simplicity, the FK score and grade level are good proxies for engagement. Text that is easier to read and easier to understand is likely to drive deeper engagement from more, prospective customers. Choosing to write in this way demonstrates true mastery of the topic, empathy for the audience, and a desire to connect as a human being.
Consider this from XLN Telecom:
“At XLN, we’re extremely proud of what we do. However, we’re not the heroes here. That accolade belongs to our customers, the small but oh so powerful businesses of Great Britain. The backbone of the economy. The engine of growth. The powerhouse of employment. But all too often these heroes get nothing short of a raw deal from their suppliers, the large, irrelevant, consumer-oriented goliaths. Individually, small businesses just don’t have the clout to negotiate fair prices from the big corporations in telecoms, utilities and financial services. But standing side by side, standing tall together, the purchase power of hundreds of thousands of small businesses can rise up against the corporate giants and make XLN savings every day.” (FK 53.7)
And this from HubSpot:
“HubSpot is inbound marketing and sales software that helps companies attract visitors, convert leads, and close customers. Buyers are taking control. They’re tuning out old-school marketing and sales tactics that are impersonal and interrupt. Turn your website into a magnet. Create content, optimize it for search engines and share it on social media. Then engage your prospects with landing pages, calls to action, personalized email and a personalized website. That’s how you market to humans. That’s inbound marketing.” (FK 55.5)
Keeping language simple and easy to understand drives engagement and interest. It has the same effect as an enthusiastic person talking about one of their passions in an entertaining way.
In tomorrow’s blog, we’ll look at the phenomenon of the Curse of Knowledge. At the end of this week, we’ll be publishing a full report on the best and worst of corporate speak entitled “Heroes & Villains”. Register your interest in receiving a copy of the report here.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.