I was investigating purchasing something expensive like a car, and found a web site which was hard to read. The long forgotten words of my English teacher from over 50 years ago came into my mind.
For a well written document,
- every sentence should be read just once
- it should be easy for the reader
For example words on a web page for selling a new car
- The Supervandex model-95 has twin cam, 16 valve supercharged petrol engine with a vanadium gismo, has a 16 speaker all round system. It has 2 seats and enough space for some small suitcases, and looks really cool.
- The Supervandex model-96 has single cam, 8 valve supercharged petrol engine with a vanadium gismo, has a 8 speaker all round system. It has 4 seats and enough space for some small suitcases, a dog and a set of golf clubs. This is a practical car.
What is wrong with those statements?
For the car sales person this is very clear as he or she needs to know the details of each model. For the average punter like me, who wants a petrol car with space for 2 dogs and my mother’s walking frame; the sentences are hard to read and require a lot of work. My thoughts would be
- “Supervandex-95 … blah blah Petrol – that’s good’… what model ? (reread the sentence) the Supervandex-95 blah blah blah… 2 seats – that’s no good for me”
- “Supervandex-96 … blah blah Petrol – that’s good’… what model ? (reread the sentence) the Supervandex-96 blah blah blah… 4 seats – and it looks like a big enough boot. Supervandex 96 sounds like the one I need”
I had to read parts of each sentence more than once, and had to keep information in my short term memory, and then forget it when it was no longer needed.
For someone wanting to buy a car (and did not care what the model number was), I think the following would be clearer.
- The two seater petrol car with space for a couple of suitcases (The Supervandex-95) has twin cam, 16 valve supercharged petrol engine with a vanadium gismo, has a 16 speaker all round system.
- The four seater petrol car with enough space for some small suitcases, a dog and a set of golf clubs (the Supervandex-96) has single cam, 8 valve supercharged petrol engine with a vanadium gismo, has a 8 speaker all round system.
Now, my thoughts are
- “Two seater… not big enough I’ll skip the rest of the sentence and go to the next item
- “Four seater, and enough space in the boot, this looks interesting. The Supervandex-96… boring boring boring. So it is the Supervandex 96 for me”
I did not have to read the whole of the first sentence, and from the second sentence I could quickly see that it met my requirements. I only had to remember Supervandex-96.
For me the second text was better than the first text.
There is the automated readability index = 4.71 *( number of characters/number of words) + 0.5* (number of words/number of sentences) – 21.43. A score of 1 is for kindergarten, a score of 14+ is Professors.
We could have the PEE test – the Paice’s Eyeball Energy test – compare texts by monitoring the movement of the eyeball, and work out the energy in micro-joules for each text. Every time the eye had to go back it would take energy to stop the eyeball, go back, and reread the text. ( Of course you would have to have a standard eyeball mass, and the text read from a fixed distance, so the energy to move the eyeball is the same – nothing insurmountable.)
We could take this further and take an electroencephalogram (EEG – a swimming cap with lots of electrodes detecting brain activity), and see how much electrical activity was generated when trying to parse statements. I remember being in China, when someone from the UK was trying to explain something to the Chinese managers (who could understand English – but not speak it), using one very long statement; many ifs, and whethers, and depending ons. My short term memory overflowed, and I was writing down what the person was saying. The amount of electrical energy I used to parse and process the nested conditional text would have powered a light bulb! I pitied the poor Chinese who ignored the statement and then said “thank you, our next question is …”.
I had a mentor who said before you send an email or go into a meeting, ask yourself “why are you telling your audience this information?” is it
- just for information
- for action
- it is such good news – Ive got to tell every one
then in the meeting tell them “I am telling you this because … you need to take an action”, or “for information”. If it is for information only, then they can only half listen. If they need to take action, for example spend money, they will give it their full attention.
Why am I telling you about the PEE test?
When you write emails of documents you need to understand who your audience is, and what they want out of the information. People should be able to read the information without going back and rereading it.
Am I going to buy the Supervandex-96 model ? I don’t know – they only gave the price of the Supervandex-95 model. This goes to show a low PEE value is not the perfect solution.