Great B2B content is clear, understandable and engaging – however complicated the subject. But it isn’t easy to simplify technical content without losing technical authority. In fact, we’ve written this blog about readability scoring in B2B, this blog about readability techniques, and even recorded a podcast with readability professor Chris Trudeau on tackling the task.
So when we were asked to cover the topic in our B2B Content Tuesday Q&A webinars, we jumped at the chance.
In this blog, we’ve put together our top three tips to help you reduce unnecessary complexity, and answered some of the great questions we were asked during the live session about readability tools.
(And if you’d like to watch the discussion in full, you’ll find the video at the foot of this page.)
Three tips for simplifying complex B2B content:
Tip 1: Complexity and jargon are not the same thing
Understanding the difference between jargon and complexity is vital. Jargon is the technical language your audience uses every day in their jobs. But complexity can also include the overly long sentences or unnecessary buzzwords that creep in with technical specifics. And that’s the stuff you can do without.
Look out for passive voice, nominalised verbs or anything that could be considered marketing waffle.
And “use” is almost always better than “utilise”.
Tip 2: The water-cooler test
Imagine you are reading your copy, out loud, to a single reader in your target market. Does it make you cringe? Are you being patronising? Or feel like you should be explaining something?
Try running it through the water-cooler test (patent pending):
Two IT engineers (or whoever you’re writing for) are conversing by a water cooler. The language they use will be absolutely specific to what they do, and they’ll use the correct technical terms. But they won’t surround it with any really complicated stuff – or speak in a way that you need a degree to understand.
(They might well say something like: “This is the third time the nozzle-alignment flangelator has corrupted this morning. I think the embedded system needs an update.” They certainly won’t say: “I am experiencing significant downtime as a result of nozzle-alignment flangelator’s sub-optimal reliability. Surely we must acquire and implement an automated embedded system update solution without undue delay.”)
Ask yourself: can you imagine what you’ve written being said over the water-cooler?
Tip 3: Readability algorithms are helpful – but not the be-all and end-all
From Flesch-Kincaid to Gunning fog, each readability measure has its own nuances and measures different things. Indeed, tools like Readable will let you grade a piece of text against several scoring methods at once.
As a general rule, the more complex a topic is, the harder you should work to make the copy easy to read and understand. Because readability algorithms tend to measure combinations of word difficulty and sentence length, they can help you to retain this balance – forcing you to make your prose simpler to compensate as jargon increases.
Having an objective readability score can also help you to avoid disagreements over your copy’s style.
If you don’t write for a living, it can be easy to think that complicated writing is somehow “better” content – although in fact it’s quite the opposite. Using a readability measure can help you move away from subjective conversations about writing style towards concrete, objective criteria.
Remember, though, that calculations based on word count and difficulty are still a fairly crude measure of our content’s quality. Algorithms can be a useful guide, but don’t be too slavish about aiming for a particular number.
Q&A: Measuring readability in B2B content
Q: What readability scoring model is best for B2B?
David: “Flesch-Kincaid grade level is quite simple and user-friendly. However, the way it’s aligned to an educational grade system might prove confusing for some stakeholders.
“For example, I’ve seen pieces of content about managed IT services, that have a Flesch-Kincaid readability level of 21 – that’s incredibly difficult, post-doctorate level text for an eBook on managed services. But if you talk about it in those terms to a stakeholder, they may point out that your audience do have doctorates, and assume it’s fine. In fact, they might decide anything less is “dumbing down”.
“But the truth is, most of the content we read at work is much, much more readable than that. Broadsheet newspapers have a Flesch-Kincaid grade of around 9, and they’re hardly simplistic.
“In that case, a model that gives you a readability score rather than a grade level could be more useful.”
Q: What readability score should B2B content aim for as a general rule?
David: “That really depends on your audience. For example, you might think about how many of your readers will engage on mobile, or have English as a second language.
“But in the areas of B2B tech where we work, I commonly see Flesh-Kincaid grade levels of 15 and more. Some sectors, like consultancy, are higher still. So if you want B2B content that is more readable than most, but without ever appearing simple, a Flesch-Kincaid grade of around 10 or 11 will help you to stand out. At that level, you can include pretty much all the technical detail you need, without overcomplicating things.”
Q: What tools can I use to judge the readability for microcopy?
David: “Unfortunately, most of the algorithms need 100 words or more to provide you with a reliable answer, as otherwise one long sentence could throw it off.
“And for conversational interfaces, or chatbots, you could take a look at the XKCD comic site. They have a text editor that will keep you to the 1,000 most common words in the English language. It’s surprising how much you can write within that limit.”
Thanks again to everyone who attended the webinar, and took part in the Q&A. Here’s the full discussion: