‘Accessible expertise’: Balancing ‘readability’ and complexity in marketing content

In George Orwell’s “1984,” the Party had several ways of ensuring conformity, limiting independent thinking and banishing impermissible thoughts and actions. These included the “memory hole” down which unacceptable images and stories were sent for permanent deletion from human consciousness to the fact that Big Brother was, of course, watching you.

But the central initiative through which these original dystopians tried to accomplish these goals was the development and promotion of “Newspeak.” As Orwell described it, “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

Recently rereading one of my all-time faves, this concept of limiting vocabulary to limit thought brought to mind one of the challenges of writing effective marketing copy.

“Readability” is the buzzword used to describe whether content conveys ideas and concepts in an understandable way. Tests, apps, programs and algorithms measure the purported readability of text, usually on scales that relate to grade level or age. The conventional wisdom is that marketing copy should be written at a sixth-grade reading level.

This is great for those who write copy for video games, superhero movies or Tide Pods, but most of your customers are probably well past elementary school.

Of course, you want your marketing content to be readable. You also want the largest possible number of prospects and customers to understand what you’re saying by sparing them from needless jargon, exhaustingly long sentences and words that make it clear you’re spending too much time with your thesaurus.

But while you want your copy to be readable, you also don’t want to come across as condescending (which means talking to people like they’re stupid, but you already knew that). Can something be “readable” while also conveying sophistication, creativity and personality? How do you find the balance between simplicity and quality when the two concepts don’t necessarily complement each other?

I write a lot of content for lawyers, doctors, accountants and other professionals. Much of what they need to convey – especially in blog posts – involves concepts that are complicated or unfamiliar to many of the people they’re trying to reach. Explaining the elements of wire fraud, the tax treatment of cloud-based services and the causes of brachial plexus injuries doesn’t always work with plain language.

Those who want to learn about these topics need more than regurgitated statutes and medical terminology. At the same time, lawyers, doctors and accountants want to convey that they know their stuff; that they’re highly trained and educated; and that they’re subject matter experts.

The sweet spot between these competing imperatives is what I call “accessible expertise.” You can achieve it by following these tips:

  • Include essential but unfamiliar terms and define them in plain English.
  • Use metaphors, analogies or anecdotes to make foreign concepts familiar.
  • Frame a complicated issue with a simple premise.
  • Acknowledge the complexity of the subject and encourage readers to seek your help.

By balancing readability and complexity and by reconciling nuance and simplicity, you can engage, inform and persuade readers without alienating them or understating your expertise. Heck, you may even be able to convince them that 2 + 2 = 5.

How do you ensure your marketing content is readable? Let us know in the comments below.

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