Is your writing too smart for its own good?
This was a comment made to me by a copywriting mentor of mine. Because the fact of the matter is this: people are not as smart as you think; at least according to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).
PIAAC is an enormous study of adult literacy that’s done every-10-years. It’s organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education. The PIAAC study basically answers the question, how well adults are prepared to function in today’s society.
According to the latest study:
4% of Americans are nonliterate, meaning that they can’t read well enough to perform activities of daily living in a modern society. And they definitely can’t take a literacy test.
14% have below-basic literacy levels. They can read and write at the first- to third-grade level. 34% have basic literacy levels. They can read and write at a fourth- to fifth-grade level.
36% have intermediate literacy levels and can read and write at a sixth- to eighth-grade level.
Let’s stop here for a second and point out the simple, undeniable, and scary fact that we have already reached more than 2/3 of your audience.
The rest of the people here, and most of the people reading this book, are part of the “cognitive elite.” 12% of American’s can read and write at a proficient, or ninth- to 10th-grade level. Yes, you read that right, most people can’t write or read at the average high school level.
And the biggest shocker: Across all countries, just 2% of adults performed beyond the high school average. Write for these folks, and you’ll miss 98% of your readers.
There are a lot of people to blame here: parents, children, the educational system, but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is. This is our reality and we need to deal with it.
At the end of the day, all this means one thing:
Simpler is better.
Our brains are hardwired to trust simple writing. Simple writing doesn’t work because it’s easier to read (although that helps). It works because it’s BELIEVABLE.
For whatever reason, the education system pushes us to believe that complexity shows intelligence. That by sounding smart, you are actually smart.
But our reptilian brain and human nature knows better. Someone who takes a long time to explain something usually indicates that the person either doesn’t understand the material well enough or they are lying to seem smarter than they are. Of course, there’s the option that they are actually telling the truth and are just poor communicators, but that’s rarely the case.
Some of the greatest sales pages and fiction books of all time had low reading grade levels. Of Mice And Men had an estimated reading level of just 3.4. To Kill A Mockingbird was 5.9. The road (which was the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner) has an estimated FK score of 4.4
“This is too easy to read.” — Nobody, Ever.
Simplicity equals readability. Readability equals believability. Believability equals conversions.
Copywriting succeeds when it’s believable. And the point of believability gets drastically better at grade 7. Yes, even people who read at higher levels will respond better to copy written at a lower grade level. Anything higher and conversions will (probably) suffer.
The easiest way to tell what your reading level is by using the Flesch-Kincaid (FK) Readability Test. It’s a simple software where you can have your copy analyzed for reading ease and gives you a grade level or FK score.
An FK grade level of 6.0 or below is easy to read. A rating of 11.0 or above is very difficult to read. As a 7-figure copywriter, you should shoot for FK between 5 and 8. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to get your reading level down a few points.
You shorter sentences. Don’t use 10 words when 3 will do. Short sentences, short paragraphs, bolding and underlining to highlight certain point will make anything you write easier to read.
Use simpler words. Don’t use uncomplicated when easy will do. Your goal isn’t too impress your readers with your majestic grasp of the english language. It’s to move them to take action. Save the fancy words for your books, speeches, and interviews.
Use action words. Action words make your copy clear and concise. This helps to lower its reading level. It also engages the reader and moves them to action – which is the goal of copywriting.
Passive phrasing requires more explanation, which can lead to long and awkward sentences. For example: “Monkeys adore bananas” v.s. “Bananas are adored by monkeys”.
FK is important, but it’s only a tool.
The phrase money back guarantee has an FK grade level of 12. But, it’s an instantly recognizable phrase that’s often used in copywriting. Copy with a FK score of 5.7 that doesn’t get the point across fails as quickly as one with an FK score of 14.1.
The most important part of “readability” is this: Does your writing hit core emotions and make your prospect want to act? And will the average 14 year old get it?
Remember, copy with FK 5.7 that doesn’t get the point across fails as quickly as one with an FK of 14.1.
My FK so far? 6.4
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