Copywriting Over The Ability to Read

When was the last time you checked your copy’s grade level reading scores? The reading level of Americans is declining. And you could be writing over your prospective customer’s ability to understand your message.

This topic is this week’s column at Target Marketing Magazine.

In the U.S., average reading levels are at about the 8th grade level. But 1-in-5 U.S. adults read below a 5th grade level. And surprisingly, 14% of U.S. adults can’t read according to the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Literacy.

The grade levels at which high school students are reading as dropped. It’s now at 5th grade levels, and is an ominous sign for the future.

Even the writing and delivery of Presidential State of the Union addresses are at lower grade levels in the most recent generation than in generations past. President George H.W. Bush averaged 8.6. Barack Obama averages a reading level of 9.4. Bill Clinton, 9.8. George W. Bush, 10.0. Compare these scores to over fifty years ago with Dwight Eisenhower at 12.6 and John F. Kennedy at 12.3.

Given these declining readability statistics, chances are more likely than not your copy is written above the reading ability and comprehension of your prospects and customers.

So what to do?

Two tips:

First: research and test your copy to identify the reading level of your market. For reference, TV Guide and Reader’s Digest write at the 9th grade, and USA Today at a 10th grade level.

Second: use the Flesch–Kincaid Reading Ease and Grade Level test. It’s in Microsoft Word. Go to “Review,” “Spelling & Grammar,” and after you spell check your document, you’ll see readability statistics. You’ll see the number of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word, percent passive sentences, Flesch Reading Ease (the higher the better) and ultimately, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score (lower is usually better, depending on your audience).

For passive sentences, a lower ranking is better than higher. Target 10% or less. The passive voice is not as interesting and exciting as the active voice.

If the Reading Ease Score is lower than you want, and Grade Level score is higher than you want, isolate paragraphs and sentences to identify problematic copy. Then here’s how you change the score:

•    Use smaller words
•    Shorten your sentences
•    Shorten your paragraphs

A review of your copy’s Reading Ease and Grade Level is an essential step that should be automatic every time you write and evaluate copy.

In the spirit of self-exemplification, here is the Flesch–Kincaid score of how the copy for this blog post ranks:

Sentences per Paragraph:    2.5
Words per Sentence:        14.1
Characters per Word:    4.8
Passive Sentences:        3%
Reading Ease:            51.8
Grade Level:            9.4


Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.