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Communications, Intranet

Mind your language!

In this guest article, Ellen van Aken reflects on the challenge of complicated writing and suggests tools to help craft easy-to-read content.


Communication can be confusingOur CEO once posted an article on the intranet that I read three times and still failed to grasp its meaning. I am quite fluent in English, even if I am not a native speaker, and if I could not understand it, how would other people? Although English was the intercompany language, most employees did not use it very often.

The article had been written by a new Communications employee. He had been hired partly because of his experience in writing intranet news articles… for American audiences. He and his colleagues had never realised that their syntax and wordplays were too difficult for a worldwide audience in a manufacturing organisation.

We shared some suggestions and the articles that followed were much easier to read by a diverse audience. The proof? They received far more comments than previously, and from all parts of the organisation this time.

Writing understandable content is also important for HR and other global functions that communicate with a large employee base with different language and reading levels.

Five suggestions for when writing for a global audience

Break it up

Keep in mind the well-known guidance around writing for the web, recognising that people are reading from screens. Use short sentences, simple words and many paragraphs with headers – these will be doubly effective for your non-English speaking colleagues. People tend to scan rather than read material that isn’t obviously relevant. Consider what Jakob Nielsen says about writing for the web, and the guidance from the Plain English Campaign.

Involve a non-native speaker

This person could suggest alternatives for complicated words or sentences, or they could write the original content for a native speaker to proof read and copyedit. Alternatively, you could ask for feedback from your international audience members about content and ease of reading.

Use descriptive, tangible words rather than conceptual words

We had a widget on our intranet home page, called ‘New Products’. People could upload pictures of their brand’s or country’s new product. It was quite popular because people were proud of their innovations. We changed the name to ‘Growth Drivers’ and while nothing else changed, people did not recognise it anymore, especially our non-US population. People asked where the widget had gone and stopped submitting any new product pictures.

Create a glossary

This will be especially useful in technical and scientific organisations, where you have to use long substance or process names that are not easy to replace with a simple word. Link to it often.

Use a tool to check your content

In general these tools will give you a good indication of the quality of your text. As with automated translations, please apply your common sense when using any tool!

Flesch Reading Ease Index

If you want to use only one tool, I recommend this one. It is easy to use and easy to influence. It reports the average word and sentence length, to encourage simple words and short sentences.

The result of the formula is a measure for readability, the higher the better. In general, a score of 60-70 is considered to be good for large international audiences.

Our CEO’s article scored 24! The Flesch Reading Ease Index is available in Microsoft Office Word (read the guide), other word processing software, and online.

Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer

This tool will check the emotion in your header. The score is a value, as well as insight in the specific emotional impact of your header. Use it online to hone the click-worthiness of your headlines.

This article has a reading ease score of 59… How do you make sure that your intranet articles are easy to read for your audience? What do you think of online glossaries?

[ Ellen van Aken ]

Photo credit: Alan Turkus

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‘Mind your language’ within global #comms: http://kilobox.net/2941 by @EllenvanAken, via @Wedge

Ellen van AkenEllen van Aken has more than ten years of experience in intranet / SharePoint roles in multinational organisations. She writes in Dutch and English.

About Guest

Would you like to write for Kilobox Communiqué? Read my guidance, and then contact me.