5 Comments

  • Lauren says:

    Great tips and insights!

  • Conchita says:

    Excellent tips — even for experienced writers such as myself….a 33 year administrative professional.

  • Sue Griffey says:

    Thx for the ebook to remind me of this great talk! This is a great reference I’ll continue to use because of the specific steps/checks for guiding.

  • This post really struck home! I was managing a proposal for a large defense project. The technical section was being managed by a Ph.D. in Physics whose writing was incomprehensible. I told him that he had to make his writing more accessible. His response was that if a government reviewer could not understand his writing then that reviewer should not be reviewing the proposal. I was aghast. I told him that he should assume his section was the last to be reviewed and it was late Friday afternoon. The reviewer might just decide to give up, give you a low score and go home. He rewrote the volume.

    • Ann K. Emery says:

      I think these scenarios are really common, unfortunately. We get lazy while we’re writing and put the responsibility for understanding our drafty wording on our poor tired readers.

  • Leave a Reply

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    Accessibility Quick Wins: Lower the Reading Level

    Updated on: Dec 7th, 2021
    Data Visualization
    , , , ,
    Ann K. Emery shares how to lower the reading level as part of 3 quick wins for dataviz accessibility.

    How do we make our graphs more accessible?

    There’s a misconception that accessibility takes all day, that’s it’s costly, or that it’s complicated. Those are all false.

    There's a myth that dataviz accessibility is costly-- that's false.

    Accessibility is woven into all my trainings, but since this is a topic I get asked about a lot, I decided to make a new talk that’s focused just on accessibility for dataviz.

    In Spring 2021 I gave a talk at the Good Tech Fest conference about dataviz accessibility quick wins.

    The talk was “Choose Your Own Adventure” style where the audience chose what we discussed from a list of options. They chose:

    • direct labels,
    • lower the reading level, and
    • lower the numeracy level.

    You can watch the recording or read the highlights. Enjoy!

    —–

    Watch the Conversation

    Why Bother Lowering the Reading Level?!

    We’re writing for busy people. The ones who see tons of graphs coming into their inbox every day.

    We need to lower the reading level.

    Not because our readers are dumb, but because they’re busy.

    They need to be able to understand what you wrote the first time—not the second, third, or fourth read-through.

    Before: A Dense Slide Title

    Here is a real-life graph from a public health agency.

    I had to read this slide title at least five times to figure out what it was talking about.

    Here is a real-life graph from a public health agency. I had to read this slide title at least five times to figure out what it was talking about.

    After: A Skimmable Slide Title

    I talked with the epidemiologist who made that slide, and here’s what we came up with:

    I talked with the epidemiologist who made the slide and together we made some edits.

    Here’s what we did:

    • We put the main takeaway point in the title.
    • We used a text hierarchy so that your eye is drawn to the largest, darkest, boldest text first. 
    • We kept her original title so that the technical people had all of the information they would need, but made it the subtitle instead.
    • We rotated the diagonal text and used horizontal text instead (for speed-reading).

    Objectively Testing the Reading Level

    We tested both titles with an official readability website.

    In the past, I’ve used https://readable.com/.

    They used to be free, but now have a fee.

    (Comment below if you have a great, free readability website you use. You can also use Word or Google for this.)

    The before graph title was a 14.2, which in the U.S. would mean you’ve graduated high school.

    The after version was a 6, woohoo!

    We tested both titles with an official readability website.

    The Average American Reading Level

    Speaking of grade 6 being a great spot to be at.. What do you think is the average reading level?

    Hint: it’s lower than you think.

    The average American reading level is a 6 – 8.

    While a lot of people have gone on to higher education levels than that, it’s not a one-to-one comparison.

    For example, it’s not, “I finished 12th grade, therefore I read at a grade 12 level.” A lot of us read a little bit below our formal education years.

    Rule of Thumb: Write 1-2 Levels Below

    Sure, you might not be writing for “the general public.”

    You might be writing for grant makers, policy makers, trustees, etc.—folks who likely read much higher than a grade 6-8.

    A good rule of thumb is to aim for 1-2 levels below your audience’s education level.

    For example, if I’m working on a board packet, and I know all the board members have an undergraduate degree, then I write two levels below that—at a middle school level.

    If I’m working on a technical report for a government agency, and I know that all the recipients have Master’s degrees or higher, then I write two levels below that—at a high school level.

    If I’m working on a technical report for a government agency, and I know that all the recipients have Doctoral degrees, then I write two levels below that—at a Bachelor's degree level.

    How to Lower the Reading Level

    Here are some quick wins:

    • Active voice (instead of passive voice)
    • Shorter words, sentences and paragraphs
    • Replace jargon with synonyms

    After drafting your sentence or paragraph (they’ll probably be really long—mine usually are!), you’re going to go back and edit your writing.

    Anytime you see a comma, replace it with a period.

    Or, if your paragraph is six sentences long, break it into two shorter paragraphs.

    Please make sure to objectively test your own writing (with Readable, Word, etc.). I don’t care what tool you use.

    Let’s Practice

    During the Good Tech Fest conference session, we practiced lowering the reading level for a few common data sentences.

    How would you lower the reading level for these examples?

    Example A: A survey instrument was designed by the ABC Research Organization.

    The quickest wins would be:

    • shorter words, sentences and paragraphs; and
    • replacing jargon with synonyms.

    Here’s the after:

    Example A: A survey instrument was designed by the ABC Research Organization. Reworked this would be: The ABC Research Organization designed a survey.

    What if you’re trying to explain the number of participants in a survey?

    How would you lower the reading level here?

    Example B: A total of 14 people participated in the survey.

    Example C: A total of 144 people participated in the survey.

    Here’s the after versions:

    Before and after versions of examples where you're trying to explain the number of participants in a survey.

    One last example with some jargon.

    Example D: Undergraduate students comprise 65% of total responses.

    How would you replace the jargon with synonyms to lower the reading level?

    Here’s the after:

    Example D: Undergraduate students comprise 65% of total responses. Reworked this becomes: Two out of three responses (65%) were from undergraduate students.

    Your Turn

    How’s the reading level in your writing? Comment and let me how your writing scored.

    This blog post has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 6.3.

    Download the eBook

    Want to learn more about accessible data visualization?

    In this ebook, you’ll learn 10 quick wins for designing accessible data visualizations. These small edits can have a big impact for our coworkers, board members, and funders who have color vision deficiencies, hearing loss, or learning disabilities–and for all of us who are pressed for time.

    Download the Ebook

    For your complimentary copy, use code: goodtechfest

    More about Ann K. Emery
    Ann K. Emery is a sought-after speaker who is determined to get your data out of spreadsheets and into stakeholders’ hands. Each year, she leads more than 100 workshops, webinars, and keynotes for thousands of people around the globe. Her design consultancy also overhauls graphs, publications, and slideshows with the goal of making technical information easier to understand for non-technical audiences.

    5 Comments

  • Lauren says:

    Great tips and insights!

  • Conchita says:

    Excellent tips — even for experienced writers such as myself….a 33 year administrative professional.

  • Sue Griffey says:

    Thx for the ebook to remind me of this great talk! This is a great reference I’ll continue to use because of the specific steps/checks for guiding.

  • This post really struck home! I was managing a proposal for a large defense project. The technical section was being managed by a Ph.D. in Physics whose writing was incomprehensible. I told him that he had to make his writing more accessible. His response was that if a government reviewer could not understand his writing then that reviewer should not be reviewing the proposal. I was aghast. I told him that he should assume his section was the last to be reviewed and it was late Friday afternoon. The reviewer might just decide to give up, give you a low score and go home. He rewrote the volume.

    • Ann K. Emery says:

      I think these scenarios are really common, unfortunately. We get lazy while we’re writing and put the responsibility for understanding our drafty wording on our poor tired readers.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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