Why are so many communications difficult to read or understand?

With millions of printed and online communications distributed every day, many readers are forced to assess the value of one piece of written material against hundreds of others, often making the read, bin, delete or ignore decision within a few seconds.

Good design can attract initial attention, but isn’t enough to keep readers from losing interest in longer documents if the writing is monotonous, ambiguous or erratic.

In the course of my proofreading work, I often read documents about to be printed or published which don’t make sense, lurch from one writing style to another or are simply boring. Sometimes there’s enough time for remedial editing, but often there’s only enough time to correct the worst mistakes.

Do interest, clarity and consistency matter?
If the purpose of a specific communication is to inform readers or persuade them to take a defined action, it will achieve neither if no one reads it. If we are serious about achieving our purpose and want maximum value from the time and money we invest in communicating, then interest, clarity and consistency do matter.

What can ensure communications are effective?
As usual, it’s good planning and effective management that prevent many problems. Here’s a few suggestions that won’t necessarily cost you more, but could make your communications more effective.

Develop a written house style
If you write a lot or produce long documents, a style guide will help to establish a consistent corporate writing style. Use it to establish your preferred way of writing certain words or phrases, names or jargon, formats for dates, numerical data, use of capitals and punctuation preferences (eg whether to hyphenate: co-operate or cooperate?).

A style guide is not about being pedantic, but about ensuring consistency. Inconsistency can put off some readers and damage your image if valuable brand or product names are written incorrectly (eg MasterCard requires an upper case C, while adidas is written entirely in lower case).

A style guide can be as basic or as detailed as you wish, varying from a single sheet of A4 to an entire book. Distribute it to everyone who writes material in your organisation and ensure that authors refer to it, especially when many writers collaborate on one document.

Take a look at the BBC News or The Times newspaper style guides for an idea of how a style guide can help.

Appoint an editor to manage a project
If you’re producing a magazine, book or long report, a capable editor will manage the separate parts to ensure that they come together as a unified document. Select someone with a good command of English who has project management experience. If you have difficulty finding someone internally and are spending thousands of pounds on a project, bringing in professional expertise could save you money.

The editor should pick up and amend inconsistencies during production and ensure all material is checked for accuracy and proofread. This should prevent the last-minute panics that can occur just before printing or publication, and also eliminate costly reprints required by undetected errors.

Read your writing out loud
Whatever you write, long or short, read it out loud as a test. If any passages sound unnatural, awkward or tedious to you, just think how they will appear to your readers. Effective writing can replicate the natural rhythm of conversational language to convey a message to readers effortlessly.

If you still aren’t sure, read it to a trusted colleague and ask their opinion, like I have done with this article. It’s better to receive practical criticism that you can act on from someone you know rather than negative criticism from customers or industry peers, and it gives you the opportunity to improve material before you publish it.

Achieving return on investment in communications
As new forms of communication such as microblogging (eg Twitter) and mobile blogging develop, demands on readers’ attention from every direction will increase further. Faced with such competition, the three actions above could contribute to changing a document’s status from ‘bin it’ to ‘essential reading’. If people read and understand a communication and take action as a result of it, it will have achieved a good return on the investment made in producing it.

It will also make this proofreader happier to read more interesting, consistent and well-written material.

See this article written by Robert Zarywacz at the ecademy 100K club for entrepreneurs.