“Keep it people, stupid.”
— Karen Friedman, television reporter turned media trainer

Take the (other) Flesch test

Make your copy measurably more interesting

Can you measure how interesting your copy is? Readability expert Rudolph Flesch believed that you can.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL To make your copy more interesting, populate it with people.

Flesch is famous for developing the Flesch Reading Ease, one of the most popular and widely used readability tests. It uses word length and sentence length to measure how easy your copy is to read.

Less famously, Flesch also created a formula for measuring “human interest” in your copy. It uses references to people and conversational language to measure how interesting your copy is to read. And interesting copy, Flesch said, is more readable.

“The structural shortcoming of the [Flesch Reading Ease] formula is the fact that it does not always show the high readability of direct, conversational writing,” Flesch wrote in “A New Readability Yardstick.”

The original readability formula, Flesch wrote, “consistently rates the popular Reader’s Digest more readable than the sophisticated New Yorker magazine, although many educated readers consider the Reader’s Digest dull and the sprightly New Yorker ten times as readable.”

So how interesting is your copy?

Run the human-interest test on your copy.

Flesch’s human interest score hinges on two measures:

1. Personal words. They include:

  • Nouns with natural gender, such as mother, father, Frank and Opal
  • Pronouns except for neuter pronouns — he and she, for instance, but not it
  • The words people (used with the plural verb) and folks

2. Personal sentences. These test how interesting and conversational the copy is. Count:

  • Quotations, whether marked by quotation marks or not
  • Imperative sentences, or those addressed to the reader, including questions, commands and requests
  • Exclamations
  • Grammatically incomplete sentences whose meaning the reader must infer from the context

The higher the percentage of personal words and personal sentences, the higher the human interest score.

Which is more interesting?

In one application of his formula, Flesch analyzed articles from Life and The New Yorker that covered the same topic.

Excerpts from Life article
Oct. 27, 1947)
Excerpts from The New Yorker article
(Oct. 25, 1947)
“Using better drugs and a wider knowledge of the mechanics of pain gained during and since the war, Doctors E. A. Rovenstine and E. M. Papper of the New York University College of Medicine have been able to help two-thirds of the patients accepted for treatment in their ‘pain clinic’ at Bellevue Hospital.

“The nerve-block treatment is comparatively simple and does not have serious aftereffects. It merely involves the injection of an anesthetic drug along the path of the nerve carrying pain impulses from the diseased or injured tissue to the brain. Although its action is similar to that of spinal anesthesia used in surgery, nerve block generally lasts much longer and is only occasionally used for operations.”

Recently, [Rovenstine] devoted a few minutes to relieving a free patient in Bellevue of a pain in an arm that had been cut off several years before. The victim of this phantom pain said that the tendons ached and that his fingers were clenched so hard he could feel his nails digging into his palm. …

“‘One of my greatest contributions to medical science has been the use of the eyebrow pencil,’ he said. He took one from the pocket of his white smock and made a series of marks on the patient’s back, near the shoulder of the amputated arm, so that the spectators could see exactly where he was going to work. … The patient’s face began to relax a little. ‘Lord, Doc,’ he said. ‘My hand is loosening up a bit already.’ ‘You’ll be all right by tonight, I think,’ Rovenstine said. He was.”

I find The New Yorker passage much more interesting than the Life passage. But exactly how much more interesting is it, and why? According to Flesch’s human interest test, the New Yorker piece is 757 times more interesting:

  • With 0 personal words and 11 personal sentences per 290 words, the Life article scores a 7, or “dull.”
  • With 11 personal words and 41 personal sentences, the New Yorker piece gets a score of 53, or “highly interesting.”

Is your copy dull — or highly interesting?
To make it more engaging, increase your human interest score

Make Your Copy More Creative

Want to communicate better with creative copy?

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“Freud could have a field day with the overcompensation that leads to boilerplate abuse.”
— Kevin Dugan, marketing communicator and blogger, in Bad Pitch Blog

Boil down your boilerplate

Keep it short

Most press release boilerplates — those “short” “About us” paragraphs at the end of a new release that describe your organization — are too long.

I’ve seen boilerplates that are as long as 400 words. People: That’s too long for the average news release, let alone the boilerplate. Instead, keep your boilerplate to 100 words or less. Even better: Keep it under 50 words.

Avoid the costs of long boilerplates.

Why so short? When your boilerplate is too long, you:

  • Overpay for distribution. BusinessWire charges a base rate for the first 400 words of a release and an additional fee for every 100 words after that. Long boilerplates can break the budget.
  • Irritate your audience. “With few exceptions editors/journalists across the board — different age ranges, experience levels and media types — agreed that pitches [and releases] should have less boilerplate,” according to Cision’s “How the Press Uses and Values Public Relations and Other Media Resources” study.
  • Risk public humiliation. See Bad Pitch Blog’s piece about a 261-word boilerplate under a 169-word release. And read this Bad Pitch Blog rant about a 178-word boilerplate.

The short and the long of it.

Let’s write more boilerplates like TheSteelAlliance’s, which weighs in at just 44 words.

“TheSteelAlliance is a coalition of more than 110 producers and affiliated organizations that came together for the first time in 1997 to launch a nationwide consumer campaign about the benefits of steel. Visit www.TheNewSteel.com for more information about the 2002 Nerves of Steel survey.”

Anything missing? I’d probably add the headquarters location and the organization’s (as opposed to the survey’s) URL.

And let’s write fewer boilerplates like Embassy Suite’s, which comes in at 174 words long. (Embassy Suites also includes Hilton Hotels’ 71-word boilerplate, bringing the total to — eek! — 245 words.)

“Embassy Suites Hotels was the first all-suite upscale hotel to enter the industry and today has more than 160 hotels. Each Embassy Suites Hotel offers spacious, two-room suites that include a separate living area with a sofa bed, private bedroom and bath, two televisions, a wet bar, refrigerator, microwave oven, and work desk with amenities like high-speed Internet access and two dual-line phones with voice mail in most locations. In addition, the suite rate at all Embassy Suites Hotels includes a cooked-to-order breakfast each morning and a two-hour Manager’s Reception** each evening. Other standard amenities include an indoor pool, fitness room and on-property restaurant in most locations. To make reservations at an Embassy Suites Hotel in resort and destination areas, travelers can call 1-800-EMBASSY or visit the Embassy Suites Hotels Web site at www.embassvsuites.com. Embassy Suites Hotels participates in the Hilton HHonors® guest reward program that allows its members to DoubleDip® by simultaneously accumulating both hotel points and airline miles with each qualifying stay. Embassy Suites Hotels is a part of Hilton Hotels Corporation.”

You could cut this in half by summarizing the laundry list of amenities, dropping the reservation line and linking to the honors details.

How long is your boilerplate?

Reach bloggers, journalists and readers

Want to write more effective media relations pieces?

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“A writer’s style should not place obstacles
between his ideas and the minds of his readers.”
— Steve Allen, founder of “The Tonight Show”

Against the law

Law professor argues that legalese is bad for business

Law professor Joseph Kimble believes that legalese costs business and government a fortune, that “bequeaths” says nothing that “gives” does not, that simple language is more precise than legal language and that plain language “beats legalese in every way with readers.”

His treatise on the topic, “Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please,” is a must for every communicator’s library. It’s also the perfect — free — gift for the lawyer in your life.

‘Clinging to legalese’

Kimble writes:

“If readers understand plain language better, then no doubt they’ll like it better than the dense, impersonal prose of most public documents. And because they understand it better, they’ll make fewer mistakes in dealing with it, have fewer questions, and ultimately save time and money — for themselves and for the writer’s company or agency. …

“[C]orporate lawyers and government lawyers need to know what kinds of tangible and intangible harm their organizations may suffer by clinging to legalese.

“But the trouble runs so deep — after centuries of poor models, bad habits, professionalitis, inadequate training, and general neglect — that it will take a universal commitment to fix it. It will take a cultural change, one that enshrines clarity and simplicity. … Start now.”


Making a case

“Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please” is also packed with case studies showing that simple language saves money and time and drives people to act more effectively than convoluted prose. That makes it a great tool for selling plain English in your organization.

Improve approvals

Want to develop an approval process that doesn’t drive you nuts?

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“Adjectives like ‘cute’ take up space, take up time and don’t deliver much in return. Not unlike some men I’ve dated.”
— Ann Wylie, president of Wylie Communications Inc.

As good as your word

‘Applewood-smoked bacon’ just tastes better

Turns out a Southwestern Tex-Mex salad by any other name would not taste as good.

Vivid menu descriptions — “applewood-smoked bacon,” “Maytag blue cheese” and “buttery plump pasta,” for instance — can increase restaurant sales up to 27 percent, according to research by Brian Wansink.

Furthermore, diners feel more satisfied after eating a Southwestern Tex-Mex Salad than after eating the same salad with a blander name.

So why do these adjectives sell while other adjectives just get in the way?

Deliver real meaning.

Adjectives work when they deliver real meaning and not “the illusion of meaning without its substance.”

Roger Dooley, blogger at Neuromarketingsuggests using adjectives that are:

  • Vivid. “Freshly cracked,” “light-and-fluffy,” “handcrafted,” “triple-basted” and “slow-cooked” paint pictures in the readers’ minds. Those pictures are more compelling than, say, a plain, old omelet.
  • Sensory. I, for one, want my bacon applewood smoked. Descriptions like this engage the readers’ senses.
  • Emotional or nostalgic. “‘Aged Vermont cheddar,’” he writes, “evokes images of crusty New England dairymen rather than Kraft mega-plants.” “Boodie’s Chicken Liver Masala” and “Grandma’s zucchini cookies” also evoke emotion and nostalgia.
  • Specific. “Wild Alaskan” salmon conjures up “visions of vigorous, healthy fish swimming in pristine, unpolluted streams,” he writes.
  • Branded. I strongly prefer Maytag, Stilton and Roquefort to plain old blue cheese … even though I’m not that clear on the difference.

Bottom line: Sprinkle in a few adjectives when they’ll change the picture in the reader’s head or otherwise engage the senses. But don’t use modifiers — gorgeous, great, groundbreaking — that just take up space.

Make Your Copy More Creative

Want to communicate better with creative copy?

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“In an age of quick information,
reading is knowing,
but seeing is believing.”
— John Sculley, former chairman of Apple Computer

Trigger happy

USDA’s MyPlate puts its money where your mouth is

One of my brilliant clients at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield once wrote in a healthy-eating column:

“Instead of our steak being the size of a deck of cards (a standard, four ounce serving), it’s often the size of small laptop computer.”

I’m not a steak woman, but I do like my brie-on-brioche sandwiches to be at least as big as my iPad.

Visualizations help us ‘see’ size.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT How can you use simple graphics to trigger your audience members to change behavior?

Whatever your personal dietary demons, we can agree on this: Visualizations help people make better decisions. Telling people that a serving of salmon should be the size of the palm of their hand makes it easier to control portions than to say it should be about four ounces.

That’s one reason I love the USDA’s new MyPlate graphic. It helps you see what you should eat.

The plate’s the trigger.

But there’s another reason I love MyPlate: It uses environmental triggers to help audience members implement the new dietary guidelines.

I, for one, have never eaten off a pyramid. But tell me to fill half of my plate with fruits and vegetables — and show me what that looks like — and every time I look at my plate, I remember what I’m supposed to do.

Move your audience to act

Want to deliver copy that gets read?

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“[Ann’s workshop was] awesome. I have six things I feel I can confidently put in action back at the office.”
— Brooke Sherman-Schmieg, communications specialist, Corning Inc.

Ann’s running out of time

Last chance to book a date with Ann in 2011

Have you been thinking about bringing me in for a writing workshop this year?

BEAT THE CLOCK I have just 5 dates open for on-site workshops in 2011. If you want one of them, let's talk fast.

If so, let’s act fast. My schedule gets fully booked earlier and earlier each year. At this point, I have open dates for only five more on-site workshops in 2011.

If you’ve been planning to bring me in this year, please contact me today. By the end of the month, I will most likely be completely dated up for the rest of the year.

Too bad this never happened to me in high school.

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“Ann’s presentations have now changed my life twice.”
— Martha Hartley, manager, internal communications, City National Bank

Ann’s touring schedule

Polish your skills at one of these events

Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations. But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.

Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.

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Where in the world is Ann?

Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program

Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.

Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:

  • Baltimore: Oct. 24
  • Chicago: Aug. 22
  • Cincinnati: Oct. 27
  • Columbia, Md.: Nov. 16
  • Louisville, Ky.: Oct. 28
  • Minneapolis: Aug. 24
  • Nashville, Tenn.: Oct. 11
  • New York City: Nov. 4-9
  • Orlando: Oct. 16-17
  • Portland, Ore.: Aug. 1-30
  • Sacramento, Calif.: Dec. 1

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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Keep up with my calendar

Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.

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Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

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For more info

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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Please share this issue

… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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