Like most people, I have a few pet peeves. The rampant misuse of the word literally triggers an automatic eye roll. When I hear someone smacking gum, it’s hard not to say, “Seriously? Are you five years old?” But the thing that really gets my blood boiling is being talked to like I’m stupid.
Of course, no one really likes that—not even stupid people.
Yet 56 percent of consumers think, “most online ads these days are insulting to my intelligence,” according to this HubSpot-AdBlock study.
This is a problem in advertising and content marketing.
We’re told that the average American adult has a seventh or eighth grade reading level, and thus we assume the average adult is also about as smart as a middle schooler. So we dumb things down for our audiences, oversimplify complex topics, and offer surface-level insights rather than putting in the time and effort to paint the bigger picture.
Image attribution: Josh Applegate
Should we perhaps give the average adult a bit more credit (and maybe even the average middle schooler)? In writing to the “lowest common denominator,” are brands alienating their more knowledgeable readers? Is it possible to resonate with both and everyone in between?
Sure, it just takes deep and creative thinking.
Small Words, Big Ideas
I worked for a business magazine straight out of college. My first assignments were short blurbs and then one-page articles. Finally, I landed my first two-page spread: a profile of eight top women in cancer research. I had a 1,000-word limit, so minus my intro, I was left with roughly 100 words to summarize each scientist’s work, her research, her findings, and the larger implications for cancer diagnoses and treatments.
I did lots of research, interviewed most of the women on my list, and wrote up my first draft. When my editor called me into her office to discuss the article, I really expected to be praised for how much complex information I managed to fit into 1,000 words.
Instead, she scrunched up her face, shook her head, and said, “I don’t understand half the words in this article. Do you?”
“Yes,” I stammered. “At least I understand the gist of it. But these are complicated scientific concepts, and it’s just really hard to explain in 1,000 words.”
“Well, try harder,” she said. “If neither of us really understands it, our readers won’t understand it.”
I went back to my desk and started on my second draft, this time removing scientific words and medical jargon that the average person wouldn’t easily understand. I left details about their backgrounds, but the summary of their work was generic.
It was very readable. Problem was, it wasn’t very interesting. My editor didn’t think so either.
“I can read this one,” she said. “But now you’re not really saying anything worth reading. No one will care who these women are unless you explain what they’ve done.”
I was flummoxed. Apparently, one version was too smart and one wasn’t smart enough. How was I supposed to find the sweet spot in the middle? It took another draft or two—and a good deal of frustration on my part and my editor’s—before I finally understood what she was trying to tell me: It wasn’t my content that needed to be smarter. It was me.
I had been essentially paraphrasing summaries of these women’s work or academic summaries written for other scientists. To explain these concepts to the general public, I had to really understand them. That meant reading more than the summaries. I needed to see the big picture. I had to do the hard work of reading, thinking, rereading, and then writing. After all, that was my job as a journalist.
As I see it, that’s also my job as a content marketer: to learn, understand, and explain.
That doesn’t mean dumbing down ideas; it means breaking them down and making them more accessible. It’s not about deciding what readers are smart enough to comprehend; it’s about explaining things in a way that anyone can understand. It’s not about being smarter than our audiences; it’s about being avid readers, fast learners, and strong communicators who are willing to put in the hard work it takes to be thought leaders and brand storytellers.
And it is hard work to create content that’s both readable and read-worthy. But anything less is just content for the sake of content (i.e., a waste of time).
3 Questions to Keep Your Content Marketing Smart
How do you find the line between talking over your audience’s heads and insulting their intelligence? Start by answering these three questions:
1. Is It Readable?
You want your audience to think deeply about your stories and ideas, rather than wasting intellectual energy trying to figure out what you’re actually saying. Simply put: If your audience needs a dictionary to read your content, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid and you’re smart; it means your content isn’t very effective.
There’s a science to readability, and some smart linguists and mathematicians have created various formulas to determine who will be able to read certain content and how much brainpower it will take to do so. For example, the most popular formulas (Flesch-Kincaid) measure both reading ease and reading level. Neil Patel offers a thorough overview of both formulas via the Content Marketing Institute. Here’s the gist:
The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Test measures sentence length and number of syllables. Content with short sentences and short words get higher scores, meaning they’re easier to read, whereas content with complex sentences and multisyllabic words get lower scores.
Patel shares these sample scores for well-known publications:
- Reader’s Digest – 65
- TIME Magazine – 52
- Harvard Law Review – low 30s
- Moby Dick – 57
- One sentence in Swann’s Way – 515.1
The Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level Test puts these numbers into perspective. Here’s that formula:
For example, here are sample grade level scores from popular content:
- CNN.com news article – 10.9
- USAToday.com news article – 10.3
- Stephen King’s The Green Mile – 8.4
- J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – 5.5
So, while the CNN article can be easily read and understood by the average 11th grader, an eighth grader could make sense of Stephen King’s The Green Mile.
There are several online tools that assess content for readability. For example, Readable.io will tell you the Flesch-Kincaid score, as well as scores from other popular readability formulas. But the bottom line is to opt for shorter sentences and simpler words.
2. Is It Clear?
I’m about to nerd out for a minute, but bear with me. I promise there’s a point.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The film takes place in the Star Wars universe, but other than a few cameos, it doesn’t involve characters from the previous Star Wars films.
Before we started the movie, I asked my husband when it takes place in the main story line. He answered with episode numbers rather than names, which is how I tend to think of them. In case you’re not familiar with the film franchise, the films released in the late ’70s/early ’80s take place after the films that were released in the early 2000s.
As I tried to mentally match episode numbers with names, I asked, “They’re numbered chronologically, right?”
“No,” my husband said.
This is when communication broke down into a confusing 10-minute disagreement in which we actually agreed but didn’t know it. (Super nerdy, but I warned you.)
To resolve the issue, I pulled up the Wikipedia page on my phone. We looked at it together and both smiled triumphantly. I was confused by the expression on his face, which clearly said, “I was right,” and then it dawned on me. The problem boiled down to one single word: chronologically. When I said chronologically, I meant in terms of the story line. He thought I meant in terms of release date.
One unclear word or idea is sometimes all it takes to derail communication. Of course, clarity isn’t exactly a big deal when the end goal is proving you’re right about sci-fi trivia. But if you’re trying to prove yourself right in court, that’s another story.
A U.S. appellate court recently ruled against a dairy company in a dispute over whether its delivery truck drivers qualified for overtime pay. The verdict hinged on one comma, or rather the lack thereof.
According to Maine labor laws, jobs that don’t qualify for overtime include:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
The gotcha is the comma-less space between the words shipment and or. Without the comma, it’s unclear whether packing (for shipment or distribution) is a single activity or whether packing and distributing are two different activities. The delivery drivers distribute foods, but they don’t pack them.
Because the law wasn’t clearer, the federal court ruled in favor of the drivers.
Precision of language rarely becomes a legal matter in content marketing, but it’s still an important consideration. Ambiguous words and missing punctuation can make content just as challenging to read as using SAT words, industry jargon, and complex sentences.
3. Is It Meaningful?
Amidst talk of anti-intellectualism, social media addiction, and shortening attention spans, it’s easy to make the case that audiences only want headlines, sound bytes, and surface-level insights. But the data tells another story. Studies show that long-form content (2,000 words or more) gets better search engine rankings, is more trusted by readers, stays relevant longer, and gets more social shares.
Even 500-word blog posts can—and should—include rich insights, interesting ideas, compelling stories, and other valuable takeaways for readers. Otherwise, why would they want to read it, much less share it?
What does your audience find meaningful, useful, or inspiring? That, of course, depends on your audience.
Tracking behavior is one way to find out. What are they searching for? What other publications are they reading? What’s the reading level and reading ease of that content? You can also get more emotional data about what they want from your brand by polling or surveying them.
Who Are You Calling Stupid?
Reading level isn’t always a sign of intelligence, nor is education. I know smart, sharp-witted people who never finished high school. I’ve also met people with impressive vocabularies and degrees who struggle with both critical and creative thinking.
If you’re going to make assumptions about your audience, assume the best. Assume they’re smart, savvy, and capable of learning, because they probably are. If your “lowest common denominator” has to look up a word or two, or think more critically than usual, that’s not the worst thing ever. Hopefully, they’ll consider it a learning opportunity. And as long as your content is readable, clear, and meaningful, you’ve done your job.Just for grins, I ran this article through a readability assessment. The results:
So, it’s readable. Is it also clear and meaningful? You tell me.
Featured image attribution: Derick Anies
The post Your Audience Isn’t Stupid. Is Your Content Marketing? appeared first on The Content Standard by Skyword.
About the Author
BiographyMore Content by Taylor Holland