“Definition of Literacy: the ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities, at home, at work and in the community — to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”
— Organisation For Economic Co-Operation And Development

We are the world

And we’re not very literate, according to an OECD study

A “severe literacy deficit” haunts the world’s most developed countries. Between one-quarter and three-quarters of the world’s adults don’t have a “suitable minimum skill level” for coping with the demands of modern life and work.

LIGHT READING More than 15% of people living in most of the developed countries participating in a recent study had the lowest levels of prose literacy. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress

That’s according to the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), a large-scale cooperative effort by governments, national statistical agencies, research institutions and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The study included 20 countries, representing more than 50% of the world’s gross domestic product.

Three types of literacy

The study rates three types of literacy on a 500-point scale:

  1. Prose literacy — the ability to understand and use information from linear copy, like editorials, news stories, brochures and instruction manuals. Average score across countries: 221 points (Level 1 of 5) to 301 points (Level 3).
  2. Document literacy — the ability to locate and use information in nonlinear documents, including job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables and charts. Average score across countries: 219 points (Level 1) to 306 points (Level 3).
  3. Quantitative literacy — the ability to use numbers in printed materials. Tasks include balancing a checkbook, figuring out a tip, completing an order form or determining the amount of interest on a loan. Average score across countries: 209 points (Level 1) to 306 points (Level 3).

The results?

In 14 out of 20 countries, at least 15% of all adults have only rudimentary literacy skills, researchers say, making it hard for them to cope with the rising skill demands of the information age.

A world of pain

Prose literacy rates in 20 developed countries

VINCENTE CAN'T READ Sweden ranks highest and Chile lowest among 20 countries in prose literacy, or how well people can use linear text like articles. But all of these developed nations face a 'literary skills deficit.' Source: Organisation For Economic Co-Operation And Development's 'Final Report Of the International Adult Literacy Survey'

Lowest literacy levels. Chile had the lowest average on all three scales. But it’s not alone. Countries with more than 15% of people at the lowest levels of prose literacy include:

  • Australia
  • Belgium (Flanders)
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovenia
  • Switzerland
  • The United Kingdom
  • The United States

Highest literacy levels. Sweden had the highest average on all three scales. All told, six countries have fewer than 15% of adults at the lowest level of prose literacy skills:

  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Sweden

But wipe that smirk off your face, Sweden. Even there, in the most literate country in the study, 8% of adults have “a severe literacy deficit.”

Five levels of literacy

The study divides each type of literacy into five levels:

Level 1: very poor. A person with Level 1 literacy, for instance, might not be able to figure out how much medicine to take based on information printed on the package.

Level 2: weak. These folks may have developed coping skills to manage everyday literacy demands. But their low literacy level makes it hard for them to face new demands, such as learning new job skills.

Level 3: basic. These folks have achieved a “suitable minimum” of literacy for coping with the demands of everyday life and work. This is about the skill level required to finish secondary school and get into college.

Levels 4 and 5: good to excellent. These folks have high information-processing skills.

“Even the most economically advanced societies have a literacy skills deficit,” researchers say. “Between one-quarter and three-quarters of adults fail to attain literacy Level 3, considered by experts as a suitable minimum skill level for coping with the demands of modern life and work.”


Source: Organisation For Economic Co-Operation And Development, ‘Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report Of the International Adult Literacy Survey,’ OECD, 2000

Cut Through the Clutter

Want to make every piece you write easier for all of your readers to read and understand?

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“IAMS: It’s About Me, Stupid.”
— BuzzWhack

‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’

Reach readers by thinking like readers

DO YOU READ ME? To reach readers, focus on your readers' interests.

When I presented a writing workshop at FedEx a couple of months ago, diversity program manager Janas Jackson told me this story:

“At my previous company, the CEO would give quarterly ‘state of the business’ speeches to employees. At the end of each message, a Vietnamese employee who didn’t speak fluent English would always ask, ‘Does what you say mean “no more paycheck”?'”

Does what you say mean no more paycheck? That’s what readers want to know about the state of the business.

Want to reach your reader? Think like your reader. Then use the bait your readers like, not the bait you like.

Here are three more observations and insights I’ve stumbled across in the past few months about thinking like your reader.

1. Is it worth the effort?

Have we met? If so, you’ve probably heard me talk about Wilbur Schramm’s Fraction Of Selection model. Schramm’s model says that people decide whether to process information by weighing two elements:

expectation of reward
effort required

What does that mean in layman’s terms? I often ask my writing workshop attendees. At a recent program for IABC North Carolina/Triangle, Allison Harmon Lane, External Communications, SAS Institute Inc., answered:

“Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Ask yourself: Is the juice — the reward your readers get from your piece — worth the effort of reading it?

2. Avoid fake benefits.

But not all verbs are benefits. As you develop your message, avoid these two types of fake benefits:

‘Congratulations on choosing us.’ Instead of writing about how the readers’ life will be different, we’re really writing about how great we are:

  • Rely on our 75 years of experience.
  • Reap many rewards.
  • Get XYZ feature.
  • Value the attention we pay to detail.
  • Appreciate our dedication to accuracy.
  • Pat yourself on the back for choosing us.

‘Clean your face.’ These messages come off as benefits, because they’re verb-based. But instead of benefits, they’re actually tasks.

“Clean your face,” demands a hotel soap wrapper. No, YOU clean YOUR face! I want to respond.

BUT IS IT A BENEFIT? 'Clean your face' and 'Clean your body' are verb-based messages, but they're not benefits. Neither is 'Stop by our booth' or 'Register for our conference.'

You’re writing a “Clean your face” benefits every time you write a message like:

  • Stop by our booth.
  • Take our class.
  • Register for our conference.

These are tasks. Instead, write about what your reader will get if she stops by your booth, takes your class or registers for your conference.

3. Write about the reader.

One way to get the reader’s attention: Write about the reader. Focus on the reader’s needs, and write in the second person, directly to “you.”

“You” has been a power tool for writers since 1934. That was the year Ralph Tyler and Edgar Dale had adults read passages about personal health taken from newspapers, magazines, textbooks and children’s health books. Then they gave the readers multiple-choice tests about what they’d read.

The researchers found that the more second-person pronouns — you’s — existed in the text, the higher readability soared. First-person pronouns (I, me, we, us) and third-person pronouns (she, her, he, him, it, they, them), on the other hand, reduced readability.

So focus on the reader. Readers don’t care about us and our stuff. They care about themselves and their needs.

Repeat after me: Your organization isn’t the topic. Your products and services aren’t the topic. The topic isn’t the topic. The reader is the topic.

Think Like a Reader.

Bottom line: If you want to reach your reader, you need to put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Or as Rebecca Kratzer, coordinator, Annual Giving, Geisinger Health Systems Foundation, says:

“Put yourself on the other side of the paper.”

Move your audience to act

Want to deliver copy that gets read?


Source: William H. DuBay, Unlocking Language (PDF), Impact Information, 2006

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“In a world where Photoshop has outed the photograph to be a liar, one can now allow artists to return to their original function — as reporters.”
— Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book memoir, Maus

Illustrated journalism comes of age

Get read, shared & revisited with graphic storytelling

When Campus Progress ran “An Education in For-Profit Education,” Susie Cagle’s graphic story on education finance, the piece:

  • Was featured on the front page of The Huffington Post
  • Was picked up by LifeHacker
  • Got more than 4,000 Facebook shares and likes
  • Garnered more than 700 tweets
  • Received more than 800 comments

The article remains one of Campus Progress’ most popular stories of all time.

NOW I SEE This graphic story on education finance remains one of Campus Progress' most popular stories of all time.

No wonder illustrated journalism has come of age, says Erin Polgreen, founder of Symbolia, a tablet magazine of illustrated journalism. She recently presented a News University webinar on the topic for the Poynter Institute.

Want to spread the word? Try graphic storytelling, aka illustrated journalism or comics journalism.

What is illustrated journalism?

Illustrated journalism integrates comics and hand illustration with traditional journalism, Polgreen says.

SHOW ME A STORY Full-length graphic novels, like Art Spiegelman's Maus, gave illustrated journalism a boost.

The form goes back to the days of Japanese scrolls, stained glass windows, Trajan’s Column, the Bayeaux Tapestry and Egyptian wall paintings of 1300 BC.

But illustrated journalism has gotten a boost in recent years from Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis — long-form graphic nonfiction stories about the Holocaust and Iran.

Now graphic storytelling is hot.

Why illustrated journalism?

Illustrated journalism, Polgreen says, helps you:

Get read. The Rumpus published “Meanwhile: The San Francisco Public Library,” Wendy MacNaughton’s graphic story about the San Francisco Public Library, on a Friday. Within two days, it had brought in 18,000 visitors.

“It can almost trick people into reading about something that they wouldn’t normally read,” says Sarah Glidden, author of the graphic novel “How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less.” “Iraqi refugees are the most unsexy thing, but if you make a comic that’s pretty, people will read it … become connected to it and maybe be engaged on a deeper level in the future.”

Maus creator Spiegelman agrees.

“Comics are for re-reading, not reading,” he says. “They’re harder not to read.”

Want to increase readership and traffic? Try comics journalism.

Go viral. Within two days, The Rumpus library story had received 500 tweets and 2,500 Facebook “likes.”

One reason: Readers are more likely to share multimedia than text-only pieces.

Want your story to get shared on social sites like Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr? Make it a graphic story.

Get published. The San Francisco mayor’s office later published the Rumpus piece as a graphic novel.

Graphic stories are more likely to get coverage than plain old text. That’s because images dictate coverage for 41% of journalists. (And they’re important to 90%.) As PR pros work to include more visuals in their releases, pitches and posts, graphic stories make a refreshing alternative to boring talking-head videos.

Generate reader response. After Jen Sorenson developed a graphic story on Whitefish, Mont., for The Oregonian, she says, “I must have heard from every single person from Montana who had ever relocated to Oregon, some of whom had been students of the park ranger I’d included in the comic.”

Want to start a conversation? Try graphic storytelling.

Engage readers. Illustrated journalism is immersive, experiential and easy to read, Polgreen says. It humanizes complicated stories and says more in one image than an essay could in 10,000 words.

“Comics journalism narratives are able to translate a depth of empathy and emotion that traditional news typically can’t (or won’t),” says Darryl Holliday, author of the illustrated journalism piece “Wedlock: Love and Marriage at the Cook County Jail.”

Make the most of new media vehicles. Illustrated journalism looks great on tablets, Polgreen says. Check out 2010 Knight Fellow Dan Archer’s “The Honduran Coup: A Graphic History” — soon to be an iPad app.

THEY LIKE IT LIKE THAT Within two days of appearing in Rumpus, Wendy MacNaughton's graphic story "Meanwhile: The San Francisco Public Library" received 18,000 visitors, 500 tweets and 2,500 Facebook likes.

Give illustrated journalism a go.

Illustrated journalism, Polgreen says, is fresh and engaging, works with many genres and is being used successfully by major media outlets.

Why not get your story out with graphic storytelling?

Communicate With Comics.

Ready to try illustrated journalism for your communications?

I’ve recently teamed up with Bill Wylie, former Marvel Comics illustrator, to help organizations tell their stories and sell their messages through graphic storytelling. Let me know if we can help you get your message across with a:

  • Comic strip
  • Comic story
  • Comic book
  • Graphic novel
  • Cartoon
  • Caricature
  • Storyboard

Bill and I look forward to working with you to bring the power of words + pictures to your next campaign or communication.

Check out our new website, CommunicatingWithComics.com, to learn more ways to move people to act with visual storytelling.

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“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. In each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
— Annie Murphy Paul, writer, The New York Times

Read it; feel it

Your brain on description

Read the words coffee, camphor or eucalyptus, and the part of your brain most closely related to the sense of smell responds. Read the words bingo, button or bayonette, and they don’t.

BRAIN FOOD Good writing makes your brain think your body's touching, smelling, acting — even engaging in a relationship.

The words you choose not only have the power to change your readers’ minds. They can also change their brains, according to new neurological research.

“Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters,” reports Annie Murphy Paul in “Your Brain on Fiction” for The New York Times. “Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.”

Paul reports on new studies that show how words make us smell scents, feel textures, experience action — even understand others better.

The nose knows.

In 2006, for instance, researchers in Spain used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to scan participants’ brains.

Then they asked participants to read words describing odors — rancid, resin and oregano, for instance — as well as scent-neutral words, like circle, short and sketch.

When participants read the words describing odors, their primary olfactory cortex — the part of the brain most closely associated with the sense of smell — lit up. When they read the neutral words, this region remained dark.

Bottom line: Readers have a physical response to sensual description.

Want to make your readers’ brains light up? Use descriptive language.

Smell what I say

These words fired up the olfactory regions of the brain ...

… while these did not.

Virtual reality

Bottom line?

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life,” Paul writes. “In each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and a published novelist, agrees.

Reading, he told Paul, is a reality simulator that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

For writers, that means that the words you choose aren’t just words. They can also be things, experiences — even emotions. Choose them well.


Sources: Annie Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction,” The New York Times, March 17, 2012

Julio González, Alfonso Barros-Loscertales, Friedemann Pulvermuller, Vanessa Meseguer, Ana Sanjuán, Vicente Belloch, and Cesar Avila, “Reading ‘cinnamon’ activates olfactory brain regions,” NeuroImage, May 2006

Simon Lacey, Randall Stilla and K. Sathian, “Metaphorically feeling: Comprehending textural metaphors activates somatosensory cortex,” Brain & Language, Vol. 120, Issue 3, March 2012, pp. 416–421

Véronique Boulenger, Beata Y. Silber, Alice C. Roy, Yves Paulignan, Marc Jeannerod and Tatjana A. Nazir, “Subliminal display of action words interferes with motor planning: A combined EEG and kinematic study,” Journal of Physiology-Paris, Vol. 102, Issues 1–3, January-May 2008, pp. 130-136

Raymond A. Mar, “The Neural Bases of Social Cognition and Story Comprehension,” Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 3, 2011, pp. 103-134

Make Your Copy More Creative

Want to communicate better with creative copy?

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“When you need to compare X number of items by Y number of characteristics, a table is your only option.”
— Ann Wylie, president, Wylie Communications Inc.

Three’s company

Compare & contrast positions

The Portland, Ore., mayoral race is boring, pundits say, because you can’t tell the candidates apart.

To bring a little life to the proceedings, Willamette Week held a fake mayoral smackdown in which it pitted local favorites against each other — a bacon maple bar, for instance, and a Paul Bunyan statue.

The bacon maple bar won two rounds of voting against real, live human beings, only to be defeated by the statue in round three.

(I stopped following the race when the fake campaigning got nasty. In round two, the beloved, born-in-Portland elephant, Packy, lost to Jack Bogdanski after the blogger accused the pachyderm of elephant-on-hippo sex — and posted the photos to prove it.)*

But real politics should be interesting, too, and Portland Monthly helps voters tell Portland’s actual candidates apart with this tabular, compare-and-contrast article:

AT THE TABLE Portland Monthly uses a columnar format to compare and contrast three mayoral candidates on everything from where their campaign financing came to why they lived in Portland to why voters should choose them to where they chose to have their pictures taken.

Do you have people, places, things or positions to compare and contrast? Distinguish them from each other with tables.

* Timothy Hutton eventually won Willamette Week’s fake mayoral race. Hutton, a New York City-based actor, plays Nathan Ford in the TV show Leverage. The show takes place in Boston but is filmed in Portland, so it only makes sense that Portlanders would name Hutton our new fake mayor.

Plan powerful communications

Want to master the art of effective communication planning?

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“I took 12 pages of notes and can’t wait to go through them to share with my team. I will look at web copy in an entirely new way — and write in an entirely new way, as well.”
— Karen Gieason, marketing communications manager, BMO Harris

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.

COME ALONG FOR THE RIDE Catch Ann at one of her upcoming workshops.

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:

  • Austin, Texas: Nov. 8
  • Baltimore: May 29-30
  • Boston: June 22, Aug. 7
  • Chicago: June 27
  • Dallas: July 17
  • Des Moines, Iowa: June 5
  • Green Bay, Wis.: Oct. 23
  • Kansas City, Mo.: July 31, Christmas week
  • Miami: Dec. 7
  • Nashville, Tenn.: May 3
  • New York: Sept. 21
  • Phoenix: July 24
  • Portland, Ore.: May 9
  • San Diego: May 4
  • Sonoma County, Calif.: Nov. 2-5
  • Spokane, Wash.: Sept. 27
  • Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 15
  • Washington, D.C.: May 16

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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… 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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For more info

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

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