Tag Archives: Plain English

Writing to senior execs? Avoid this! [infographic: reading grade level]

How tough reading grade levels can limit your career

A high (hard) reading grade level puts off time-poor senior executives

I was training a group from a big-4 bank when a guy (bravely) shared a vital lesson he learned about reading grade level:

I worked hard on a report for a senior manager. I dug deep, adding research, statistics and sound logic. After many hours at work and late at night, I sent it to him, certain it was excellent.

So it was an unpleasant surprise when he replied with:

‘Could you have another go? I couldn’t crack the code.’


‘Cracking the code’ means tough to follow. Hard to understand.

Blind spots like these are incredibly common, even among ‘pro’ communicators.

A simple test is your reading grade level—how many years of school someone needs to easily understand your message.

Writing at grade-10 level is too hard for 80% of people.

Think you’re fine? Run a little test: What’s the reading grade level of your LinkedIn profile? Try it now:

  1. Copy and paste your LinkedIn profile into https://team.credosity.com/
  2. Click Readability
  3. Click Readability Stats to see your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Are you game to comment below with your result? (It’s a measure of bravery!)

‘But I’m writing to smart people. They can read tougher text.’

And there, my friend, is the rub: They CAN read higher reading-grade-level text, but do they WANT to?

When people are time-poor (as senior execs are), they ruthlessly avoid doing unnecessary work. Which means they’ll favour messages that are easier to read.

If yours is tough to read, they’ll skip or skim it. They’ll miss your main points, you’ll get a ‘no,’ and be left wondering why.

This infographic sums it up—stay out of the Dead Zone at bottom left!

Infographic: Use reading grade level to boost reading motivation

Download the PDF of this infographic.

Useful? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


Paul & the Magneto/Credosity Crew


The Curse of Cognitive Load: Why complexity kills comms


‘When I saw them shuffling back from the director’s office, I knew he’d said no.’

If you’re like most people, you’re missing something crucial in how you think about communication: The impact of cognitive load.

This true story sums it up:

My client’s team pitched a project worth over $1m to the company head. They’d spent months working on it. It would benefit their department and the whole organisation—it was bound to be a sure thing.

They met their director, and pitched with gusto. He seemed convinced. But at the end, he rejected the project. They were shocked.

So when my client saw them shuffling back, his mouth dropped. ‘How could he turn down this project?!’ They shrugged.

‘Show me your slides,’ he said.

They pulled them up, all 40 of them.

He chose four, and hurried back to the director’s office. ‘Excuse me, a quick word? You declined this project, but look …’ And showed him the slides.

The director sat back, arched his eyebrows and said,

‘Oh, I didn’t realise that. Okay, it’s a yes.’

Just like that, my client saved the project. With four slides.

What happened? The complexity of the 40-slide message left doubt in the director’s mind. His safe default was ‘no’.

But the clarity of the simpler, four-slide message—slides chosen around his needs, interests and objections—gave him confidence to say yes.

Simple is good. Complex is bad.

Complexity kills comms

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his work in behavioural economics.

He found our brains are ruled by two systems:

System 1: Fast, intuitive, automatic, error-prone—e.g. recognising an angry face, working out 2 x 2, or understanding simple sentences.

System 2: Slow, effortful, conscious, reliable—e.g. working out 15 x 37, resisting temptation over a long time, or finding Wally.

We prefer being in System 1 because it’s EASY. And we’ve evolved to save energy, even mental energy.

Kahneman found when you ask people to read a complex message, you push them into System-2 thinking. And because that means a dirty, four-letter word—WORK—they dislike it.

In fact, when using System 2 we become:

  • Vigilant
  • Suspicious
  • Uncomfortable.

But when you present a message our System 1 can process, we tend to:

  • Like it
  • Believe it
  • Trust it.

Are you seeing the implications here? THAT’S why we’ve been banging on for years about the importance of keeping your message simple.

‘How difficult it is to be simple.’ Vincent van Gogh

Cut cognitive load

Keeping your message simple - cut cognitive load

What’s cognitive load? Anything that adds extra processing for the brain. Things like:

  • Long words (e.g. ‘multisyllabic’ instead of ‘long’)
  • Long sentences (longer than about 20 words)
  • Fat paragraphs (longer than 4-5 lines thick)
  • Passive voice (try the ‘zombie’ test)
  • Jargon
  • Errors (e.g. punctuation, grammar)
  • Waffle (e.g. ‘at this point in time’ instead of ‘now’)
  • Nominalised verbs
  • Unnatural sequence (say it in the order it happened)
  • Long bullet lists, like this!

By themselves, we can handle each of them.

But, like lamination, it’s the layering of them that gives them their strength. The message becomes gobbledegook. Our brains are pushed into System-2 thinking, spit the dummy, and stop reading.

What else adds to cognitive load? Let us know in the comments below. 

Credosity cuts cognitive load

Our enterprise writing coach, Credosity, masterfully strips cognitive load from your messages. Savvy communicators are using it, including people at QSuper, Westpac, Qld Treasury Corporation and Santos. Like to join them?

Try it free, for 30 days.

You’ll find it simple, not complex, to use! (System 1 all the way.)


Paul & the Magneto/Credosity crew

Webinar: Trim the Fat – Keep Decision-Makers Engaged!


Limited seats: Book now.

Date and Time

Friday, August 29, 2014 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM AEST


(Attend this for FREE! To receive a discount code to attend ALL our webinars as our guest, just subscribe to our free writing tips.)

Those with the power to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to your projects are extremely time-poor.

That means your project is going nowhere unless you can get — and keep — decision-makers’ attention.

In editing 4000+ writing samples for our course attendees over the last seven years, I’ve seen the same readability problems in almost every attendee’s sample. It’s unbelievably consistent.

In this webinar, you’ll learn what these issues are, and how to correct them to make your writing a pleasure to read, not a pain.

You’ll learn:
1. Tricks to writing concisely
2. The ideal average sentence length
3. Keys to deleting redundant words
4. What ‘plain English’ really means (it’s not what you think)
5. The two biggest factors that affect readability
6. Why nouns cross-dressing as verbs make your writing ugly
7. And more!

Award-winning copywriter & corporate writing trainer, Paul Jones. Paul is a dynamic presenter whose copywriting and training clients include NAB, Westpac, BHP, Fairfax and IBM.

The more educated you are, the more you need this webinar. At school and university you had to write to a word count. You therefore likely developed bad habits such as waffling on, not getting to the point, using big words to impress, and writing in long, complex sentences — everything that turns off readers.

If you want specific tools to trim content to make your writing more engaging and readable, here’s your chance!

100 seats only — book now.

If you miss out on a seat, email us  and we’ll add you to the waitlist.

Please only book if you intend to join us — don’t block others from attending.

Grab your seat now!



Research proves it: Big words make you look dumb

Donkey in classroom

GO ON; admit it: You sometimes use big words to impress readers, don’t you?

I certainly have — especially when writing university assignments years ago.

But research from USA’s Princeton University shows that readers are anything but impressed — they think you’re trying to hide something. AND they judge you as less intelligent. Harrumph!

(The research paper‘s title is apt: ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.’)

But isn’t a rich vocabulary associated with intelligence? Yes. It is. But just as you could use 1000 fonts and colours in your next email, but should only use one or two, so you’re better off simplifying your language.

Albert Einstein: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’
Which of these do you prefer?
  1. ‘High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.’
  2. ‘Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.’
Do you really feel the writer of ‘1’ is smarter than that of ‘2’? I don’t. So keep it simple, Simon.
And don’t stop there. If you’ve done our ‘Get it Write’ course you’ll know about the other plain-English tools that make your writing clearer and briefer, such as avoiding passive voice, nominalised verbs and redundancy. Apply those, too.
Got a favourite piece of erudite vernacular that annoys you? Share it in a comment below and make us cachinnate!
Paul & the Magneto team
P.S. Our September online/virtual masterclass is full, but we’re taking registrations for October and November now. Grab your spot before it goes!

Doctor’s orders: Less waffle. More cream.


Bad advice for your body.

Good advice for your body copy.

Do you sometimes ‘waffle‘ on? Where did you learn to do that? I’ll tell you: school and university.

With every assignment, you were given a word limit; e.g., it had to be 5000 words long.

How often did you have so many good ideas that you had to cull them to stay within your word limit? Or (like me), did you have to fluff them out to fill up your word limit?

Many (most?) have taken this habit to work. Unfortunately, busy people hate it. Wordy, unfocused writing wastes readers’ valuable time. People also make snap judgements about waffley writers: They must be muddled thinkers.

So give them less waffle, and more cream.

Less waffle

  • Maybe how you think it isn’t how you should write it. Writing is a great way to figure out stuff (EM Forster: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I write?’). But think twice before you present your thinking process to your reader. Perhaps where you ended up (e.g., the conclusion/ recommendation) is where your document should begin. So start with an outline of headings and bullets (instead of fully-fledged sentences), and get your structure right first.
  • Stay on task. Write your objective down, and stick to it. A common reason for waffling is being unclear on what you’re trying to achieve in the first place — you have words looking for ideas. Clarify your ideas first.
  • Write as you talk. One of our course attendees recently said he’d emailed his report to his boss, who replied, ‘Please have another go; I couldn’t crack the code.’ Don’t be that guy. Use plain English. Once you get your key points down, try to write it as you’d say it if the reader was sitting in front of you. Conversational writing is engaging.

More cream

  • Cut to the chase. They’re looking for the most interesting bits, so try to put them first. You don’t always have to tell a ‘story,’ leaving your ‘big news’ until the end.
  • Make it about them. Writing a proposal? Lead with their need, not a hymn of praise to your company. Writing an email? Tell them how it’s relevant to them, why they should care. And tell them the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) if you can.
  • Make your subheads tell the story. Accept it: They won’t read every word; they’ll skim-read (like you do). So catch their eye with subheads throughout, and make them ‘newsy.’ Not ‘Recommendation,’ but ‘Recommendation: Give chocolate to staff.’
Less waffle. More cream. And chocolate. Nirvana! Got a question about cutting your waffle? Leave a trail of crumbs as a comment below.
Paul & the Magneto teamP.S. ‘Like’ Magneto’s Facebook page for extra tips, links, pictures and resources.

Worst gobbledegook ever?

Is this the worst gobbledegook you’ve seen?

It’s from a thesis, describing what a close-up shot is in a movie:

“The close up expands optical perception by means of straightforwardly embodying the living character beyond material confinements, or through the durational flow of interpenetrating elements of expression that engages the spectator to the experience of non-conceptual temporality.”

And you thought it was just a picture with the camera close to the subject!

How to write a ‘keeper’ Christmas card

Christmas night scene

In our frenzied world of Christmas over-consumption, here’s a steadying thought from Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu:

Manifest plainness,
Embrace simplicity,
Reduce selfishness,
Have few desires.

So here are two plain, simple, unselfish things you can do this Christmas to leave you wanting for less:

  1. Give a hand-written, heart-felt card (a ‘keeper’) to the important people in your life, including some clients.
  2. Give to a charity you believe in. Did you know that only one in five Indigenous kids in remote communities can read? It’s a tragedy, so we support the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation. Like to help, too?

Here’s how to write a ‘keeper’ Christmas card (notice that all but the last tip can also apply to your business writing):

  • Get in the mood: Put on some tunes, platter up something good to eat, decorate your tree, wrap some pressies, flick through old photos – whatever puts you in a calm, festive headspace. Great writing can come under pressure but rarely when you’re stressed, distracted or rushing to the next task.
  • Choose cool tools: First, a great pen. Second, an exquisite card – one that sets the standard at first glance. Ditch that cheesy Santa-riding-a-reindeer one from the service station, OK? Try boutique bookstores, art galleries, or make your own (even more fun).
  • Draft it offline: When the words matter, first have a practice run on another piece of paper. Get your spelling and grammar right. If you’re writing to a family, it’s the ‘Barkers’ not the ‘Barker’s.’
  • Keep it personal: Imagine you’re talking to them as you write. It makes for a beautifully connected, authentic style.
  • Highlight the spectacular: What to write? If you draw a blank, try jotting down three things you genuinely appreciate about them – things you may be uncomfortable saying face-to-face, or never get around to saying. Don’t mention the fifty bucks they owe you.

Here are a few openers if you didn’t put enough (or too much) brandy in your eggnog before you sat down to write:

  • Thank you so much for…
  • My favourite time this year was when…
  • This Christmas, I hope you/we…
  • Christmas always reminds me of…
  • My wish for you this year is… (love, success, fun, laughter, good health, adventure, etc.)
  • Let’s make a New Year’s Resolution to…
  • ‘Merry Christmas’ in their language, or in their forebears’ language (however exotic)

How else could you start a card? In the Christmas spirit, please share your ‘thought’ gifts in the comments below.

All at Magneto wish you safe celebrations this year, and a rollicking start to 2013!

P.S. If you haven’t seen ‘A Moody Christmas,’ and you love irreverent Australian humour, you now have some holiday viewing!

Ten Commandments of business writing

Moses and tablets

Don’t send your readers to Hard-to-Read-Hell! Here are our Ten Commandments for praise-worthy business writing (some will surprise you):

  1. Thou shalt not use words like ‘thou’ nor ‘shalt.’ Or anything else that isn’t Plain English – even if your topic is complex. KISS: Keep It Simple, Simon.
  2. Answer thy reader’s biggest prayer first. Lead with your ‘big news.’ You don’t always have to tell a story. Cut to the chase, then ‘backfill’ with readers’ likely questions. If they stop reading before the end, at least they’ll get your main point.
  3. Waffley writing is an abomination unto readers. Be brief. Like this.
  4. Selfishness is sinful. Step into your reader’s sandals and stay there. Make it about them, not you.
  5. Know thy reader. It’s about psychology, not fancy words. The better amateur psychologist you are, the better writer you’ll be. Learn more about how to engage, motivate and persuade people. The book ‘Influence’ by Cialdini is a good start.
  6. Thou must believe! If you’re not sold on your argument, your readers won’t be. Make a strong case. Consider both logical and emotional angles. And remember to quantify: Specifics sell.
  7. God rested on the seventh day; readers want to rest every day. Make life easier for them by doing the ‘work’ for them. More people will then read more of your writing. For example, use bullets, graphics, summaries and key-points lists.
  8. Correctness is next to Godliness. Mistakes are unholy. Check your grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. You don’t want to look dum (like that).
  9. Lift thine eyes to the sky. Or anywhere but your page, once you’ve finished writing. Proofreading is crucial. Put it aside to get fresh eyes. Never write, polish, and send immediately.
  10. Read the word. Actually, read lots of them – quality words written by fine writers. It programs your brain to produce the same. (Read to your kids, too, if you have them; it’ll change their lives.)

Go on: ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you,’ and add your voice to the conversation in the comments below!

Stop making this clunky error

Use verbs not nouns

Have you just typed a readability nightmare? One of the most common readability errors we see in trainee writing samples is people nominalising their verbs.

That’s when you turn healthy, interesting verbs into weak, clunky nouns.

How to avoid it
Nominalised verbs suck, literally – they suck the life out of your writing.

[Recap from school: Nouns are ‘naming’ words (e.g., table, tree), while verbs are ‘doing’ words (e.g., run, drive).]

Let me prove it. Which of these do you prefer?

A. ‘It is my recommendation that you submit a revision for the quote.’
B. ‘I recommend you revise the quote.’

Most people would say ‘B.’ Not only do the verbs ‘recommend’ and ‘revise’ make the sentence more interesting, but much shorter, too. (If you prefer ‘A.’, you need this: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/files/howto.pdf.)

Search for ‘the’
Here’s how to check if you’re guilty of turning your verbs into nouns: Search for ‘the’ in the last thing you wrote. Since nouns can be preceded by the word ‘the,’ you’ll probably flush out some nominalised verbs.

For example, if you find ‘The suggestion of the engineers is to … ’, you’ve found the nominalised verb, ‘suggestion’. Change it back to a verb and rewrite it as, ‘The engineers suggested …’ Much better; it’s clearer, shorter and has more impact.

How many did you find? Are you a serial nominaliser? Post your example/s in the comments. We even have a prize for the best example!

Keep it short, sport

If time is money, NOT writing concisely costs business a bomb – things take longer to read, impact is lost, and the REAL message is often hidden. Say NO to waffle!

Here are five keys to keeping it short:

  1. Use the “So what?” test. If a point you make isn’t completely relevant to readers, chop it.
  2. Use plain English. “Never use a long word when an exiguous one will do.” Don’t try to impress readers; just be clear.
  3. Use the “active voice,” which puts the “doer” before “what’s done.” It’s shorter and more direct. “The road was crossed by the chicken,” is passive. “The chicken crossed the road,” is active.
  4. Edit ruthlessly. The French scholar Blaise Pascal wrote to a friend 300 years ago, saying, “Sorry I wrote such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Good writing is rewriting.
  5. Never just write and send. Let your writing “sit” for a while (at least a few hours, if not days). You’ll then see shorter, sharper ways of saying things.

Put these into practice and your readers will love you for it!

What do YOU do to keep your writing short and waffle-free? Please let us know in a comment below…