Making complex data accessible: The fundamental rules of readability
Sometimes life is complex, especially in the world of modern, data-driven business. With so much information available, the content with the most impact is that which tells an engaging and cohesive story.
But to tell your story effectively often means distilling a range of data into a digestible and compelling narrative. And that’s not always easy.
Here are Stratton Craig’s top tips for making your content as accessible as possible, no matter how complex the subject or data-heavy the copy. These fundamental rules of readability will help add further value to your communications, from thought pieces to reports to awards entries.
Preparation is very important when writing about data-heavy or complex subject matters. Don’t just assume that because you understand a topic, your readers will too. Even the most seasoned writers can make the mistake of ploughing headfirst into a task, only to realise halfway through that they have missed the point or lost their way.
Think about the data you want to present to your readers and take the following steps:
1. Put the subject in context – why is it important and how does it connect to your readers? This helps you understand how your content is going to add value to both your audience and your organisation.
2. Break it into chunks, build it back up – by breaking your content down, you can make sure you haven’t missed any essential ingredients. The end result will also be more digestible for your audience.
3. Make sure your data supports your aims – what are you trying to achieve with the content? How do individual bits of data help you reach that goal? Is the information robust enough to persuade on the point you are making? Does it need further context?
Think about your audience and what you want them to do
As an agency, you want content to add value to your operations. In reality, this will mean inciting some kind of action from the reader, whether this is liking it on Facebook or picking up the phone and getting in touch.
But different audiences want different things. B2B readers are all about the benefits, whereas award judges need to be persuaded that you’ve met all the criteria. By understanding who will be reading your content you can cut out a lot of unnecessary detail and hone in on the areas that matter.
The rules of readability
There is no quicker way to turn a reader off than presenting them with one long, dense paragraph. You need to signpost your story, helping readers pick up the details along the way.
Here are some important things to consider:
Start with a killer opening
The first paragraphs should establish why the content is relevant to your readers. Can it relate to a wider picture? If so, introducing some stats at the start can be a great way of bringing your writing to life.
But there is a major difference between setting the scene and taking two or three paragraphs to get to the point. Think carefully about what information you need to present straightaway and what you can introduce later.
Keep jargon to a minimum
In writing, jargon is used to show that an author is part of a particular group. Although it can be necessary in some situations, it often gets in the way. Keep in mind that your intended audience might not be from that group, so stripping out jargon can instantly make things easier to digest.
Avoid common pitfalls
There are some common mistakes that hamper writing about any subject, from what you had for dinner to how scientists are searching for elementary particles beneath the France-Switzerland border. They can all be described as ‘drifting’; the process of gradually losing focus as a piece of content goes on.
Here are the key things to avoid:
1. Setting false expectations – it can be all too easy to make a claim in your introduction about what you are going to achieve, before coming to a different or conflicting point by your conclusion. This is often a symptom of not planning out your structure before starting to write, or not reviewing your first draft thoroughly.
2. Digression – it is always tempting to give examples and extra background information, but this quickly creates additional and often irrelevant paragraphs. In some scenarios it works to provide links and suggestions for further reading to allow readers to dictate how much extra information they get.
3. Too much detail – this is the most important one to look out for when writing about complex topics. Select only necessary and important data. Readers aren’t usually in the mood to wade through oceans of superfluous data; they want clear, compelling insights, not ill-considered lists of complex stats.
Space it out
Don’t be afraid of hitting the enter key. Space your content out and use engaging subheadings. Paragraphs shouldn’t really be more than two or three sentences long – if they are, you may be over complicating things.
One point per sentence
This is really important. One mistake we see all the time is mammoth sentences veering off in different directions. The general rule for accessible reading is to stick to one idea per sentence. When it comes to technical, data-packed content, your readers will be grateful to only have one point to consider during every sentence.
Create a clear review process
You need another pair of eyes on your initial drafts. Maybe even two; preferably someone who knows the technical ins and outs of the subject, as well as a layperson. This should give you the two things you need from a good review process: is it factually accurate and is it understandable?
Also, don’t be too wedded to your first draft. The aim of the first draft is to make sure you are on track with messaging and structure. Be prepared to make substantial changes based on your initial feedback.
Let your story shine
When it comes to summarising data into a short, sharp piece of easily digestible content, these tips will help keep you focused on what really matters.
Remember that the data you use should always back up your central message. Complexity for complexity’s sake is unlikely to make you many friends and your aim should never be to try to overwhelm your readers. After all, you want as many people to know about your achievements as possible.