The clear case for simpler B2B content
Do stakeholders accuse you of “dumbing down”? David McGuire of Radix Communications has five facts to support your case.
There are two big reasons why so much B2B marketing content is difficult and time-consuming to read. Writing clearly about complex subjects is hard, and convincing stakeholders to accept simple content is harder.
Every time I run B2B Marketing’s copywriting course, marketers tell me they’d love to simplify their writing, but they can’t. They’re accused of “dumbing down” by managers and subject matter experts, conscious that the audience is often educated and technically-aware in their own right.
And if the argument stays a subjective one about which writing style you prefer, nothing will change.
Convincing stakeholders: build an objective case
If you find yourself battling internal stakeholders, you’re far from alone. At Radix, we surveyed 105 B2B content marketers, and (spoiler alert) just 14% said everyone in their organisation agrees on what good content looks like.
No wonder so much content goes to 12 rounds of amends and ends up as a written-by-committee mess. Nobody knows where the goalposts are.
After all, both sides of the argument have merit. Your content has to speak your reader’s language, and patronising a technical audience will kill your credibility. But in practice, your reader is probably time-poor, and – while they absolutely use industry jargon in context – I doubt their real, everyday conversations sound like a doctoral thesis.
You’re at an impasse (and the stakeholder will usually pull rank to get their own way). But make it objective – bring actual research, data, and science into play – and you have a chance to build a case.
In short, don’t bring opinions; bring facts.
Fact 1: Clearer copy is better for credibility
We know when people are using inflated language to try and impress us – and we instinctively distrust them. It’s one reason we’re cautious of politicians when they use 20 words instead of 5.
Compare O2 CEO Mark Evans’ apology after their 2018 outage with the statement from his Ericsson counterpart, Marielle Lindgren. Who do you trust?
Crucially, there’s research to support this. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman references a 2005 study by Daniel M. Oppenheimer, brilliantly entitled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”. It proves that complicated text harms the reader’s opinion of the writer.
Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow,
“If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. My Princeton colleague Danny Oppenheimer … showed that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.”
This make sense, because explaining a topic simply takes great understanding. Think of people you consider intelligent: say David Attenborough, Professor Brian Cox, or Hannah Fry. They’re usually the ones who take something complex, and use their knowledge to make it clear.
Fact 2: Clearer content is measurably faster to read
One thing all B2B decision-makers have in common: they’re time poor. And that means nobody is going to sit back with some slippers and a cup of tea, and relax with your marketing content. If your stakeholders know your customers, ask them how busy they are.
So it’s worth knowing that the physical process of reading gets measurably faster when you make the text simpler.
Partly, it helps when you cut the word count, but the words you choose also make a huge difference. Most people have learned to recognise about 15,000 common words without really looking – and when you use those words, their eyes almost skip them. This makes it much quicker to extract the information from the piece.
(Specifically, each unusual word takes about 100 milliseconds longer to read. Over an ebook or whitepaper, you could easily make 5-10 minutes’ difference for the same word count. There’s more detail in Sarah Richards’ excellent book Content Design.)
In short, if your reader is busy (and they almost certainly are), clear writing shows you understand that, and respect their time. It also makes it more likely they’ll have time to read to the end, so it’s good for engagement too.
Fact 3: Educated readers are proven to prefer clearer writing
There is no evidence to support the idea that a highly educated reader wants content to be difficult. Quite the contrary.
In his 2011 study of legal copy “The Public Speaks”, Professor Christopher R. Trudeau showed that more educated readers are completely unimpressed by complex language. He then expanded these findings among a broader, international audience in a 2017 study called “The Public Speaks, Again”.
Christopher R. Trudeau & Christine Cawthorne: “The Public Speaks, Again”,
“Data helps dispel the oft-proclaimed myth that using Latin words or complicated legal words will help impress people.”
Overall, 80% of people preferred sentences written in plain English.
Fact 4: Simpler text gives the broadest possible audience
There’s no guarantee that your reader has English as their first language. And however good their English may be, various academic studies show reading in a second language adds significant complexity – requiring more time and cognitive capacity.
You can’t know how much of your audience this applies to. But you can probably tell your stakeholder exactly how many are reading on a mobile device – which again puts a layer of difficulty on top of whatever you write.
The reader’s context has a real impact on what they can understand.
Meanwhile, even B2B decision-makers’ level of literacy might not be what you assume. The UK’s average reading age is 9, and even a broadsheet newspaper like The Guardian only has a reading age of 14.
(For reference, that’s about the same as this blog post – and hopefully you don’t feel it’s oversimplified.)
Fact 5: Readability is not subjective – we can measure it
There’s no need to get into a debate about whether your content is easy or difficult to read. There’s a whole bunch of scoring algorithms that can give you a clue.
That means you can get away from arguing about individual writing styles. Instead, you can agree a reading difficulty level you want to stick to, and assess each piece against that standard. The conversation goes from “this looks a bit tricky to read” to “this has a Flesch-Kincaid grade of 15; we really need it to be more like a 10”.
The algorithms are quite blunt tools (they measure basic things like syllables and sentence length) so you might want to use them more as a guide, but they’re very helpful. I once showed a stakeholder that their competitor’s white paper was a post-doctoral level of difficulty; from there, it was easy to see how their prospects might like a more manageable alternative.
Helpfully, my colleague George Reith has written a blog post about B2B readability that demonstrates various Flesch-Kincaid grades as it goes. It’s a good way to get a feel for what each level means.
George Reith, “Readability in B2B Content”,
“Even if you write for smart, educated businesspeople, no one has ever complained that something was too easy to read.”
Writing simply is not the same as “dumbing down”
The main message for your stakeholder is that you understand B2B content needs to keep its technical authority, even as the text becomes simpler.
It’s a difficult trick to achieve, because the technical detail you do need tends to drag along a load of inflated language that you really don’t. Your job is to separate the two, so you can still use your reader’s real vocabulary, but surrounded by words and sentences that are much easier.
The result is much more like what your reader would say if you talked to them. Technical words, in an everyday context.
And the good news is, it’s totally doable. You just need a little training…
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