Thursday, December 17, 2009

On readability, UPS scores higher than average

Good readability (consisting of short sentences, short words, legible typeface, adequate leading, and so on) is a prerequisite to clarity.

Rudolf Flesch based his Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) test on sentence length and word length alone. FRE has proved to be a highly reliable test of readability and is now the world’s most widely used test.*

Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) Scores

FRE scores range from approximately 0 (the lowest readability) to approximately 100 (the highest readability). Here are a few typical ranges:

60s Reader’s Digest
50s Time magazine
40s The Wall Street Journal
30s Harvard Law Review
20s tax forms; academic papers
10s High-tech web sites

Readability in the Corporate World

Large companies in the USA score in the 30s, 20s or 10s. Many high-tech companies score lower than 10. There may be a large company that scores above 40, but I have not found it yet.**

Try this: Randomly select a company from the Fortune 500 list, and randomly select one of its press releases, white papers, or web pages. It will probably score in the low 20s. This means, most large companies are trying to sell products or services via marketing copy that is as hard to read as a tax form or an academic paper.

Below I display a passage that has high readability, by the relaxed standards of the corporate world. This is the best you can normally expect when corporate committees try to write. (But you will learn to do better than this – much better. I will help you.)

The sample is a page from the UPS web site. It is the history of the company from 2000 to 2007. This web page scores 25 on the FRE.

From the UPS web site


Global Commerce and Transformation

Over time, UPS has become a leader in global supply chain management. At UPS, global distribution and logistics involves managing not only the movement of goods, but also the information and funds that move with those goods.

UPS customers repeatedly asked to tap into this expertise, which ultimately led to the development of a full-service business. UPS Supply Chain Solutions is a streamlined organization that provides logistics, global freight, financial, and mail services to enhance customers’ business performance and improve their global supply chains.

In 2001, UPS ventured toward retail business by acquiring Mail Boxes Etc., Inc., the world’s largest franchisor of retail shipping, postal and business service centers. Within two years, approximately 3,000 Mail Boxes Etc. locations in the United States re-branded as The UPS Store® and began offering lower UPS-direct shipping rates. The stores remain locally owned and operated, and continue to offer the same variety of postal and business services, with the same convenience and world-class service.

UPS continues to expand service worldwide. In Europe, Asia, and South America, customers enjoy an unmatched portfolio of time-definite and supply chain services. Two major enhancements to international service came with the expansion of Worldport, the air hub in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as the European air hub in Cologne, Germany. With Asia identified as a primary growth target, in 2005 UPS launched the first non-stop delivery service between the U.S. and Guangzhou, China. That same year, UPS acquired the interest held by its joint venture business partner in China, giving it access to 23 cities that cover more than 80% of the country’s international trade.

From using electric vehicles in New York City during the 1930s to developing water conservation techniques while keeping the familiar brown package cars clean, as well as operating the world’s largest fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, UPS has long practiced environmentally-conscious innovations. Although sustainable practices are not new to UPS, the company recognized the need to formally document its focus on responsible business models. In 2003, UPS issued its first Corporate Sustainability report, highlighting the importance of balancing economic, social and environmental objectives. Now an annual report, it tracks the company’s key performance indicators relevant to the business.

UPS continually gains wider access to various markets through acquisitions. The 1999 acquisition of Challenge Air made UPS the largest express and air cargo carrier in Latin America. Purchasing Menlo Worldwide Forwarding in 2004 added heavy air freight shipment capability, while the acquisition of Overnite in 2005 expanded the company’s ground freight services in North America. Other recent acquisitions in the U.K. and Poland present new opportunities for growth in Europe.

Over the past 100 years, UPS has become an expert in transformation, growing from a small messenger company to a leading provider of air, ocean, ground, and electronic services. The most recent public change came in 2003, when the company introduced a new brand mark, representing a new, evolved UPS, and showing the world that its capabilities extend beyond small package delivery. The company went another step further, adopting the acronym UPS as its formal name, another indicator of its broad expanse of services. Ever true to its humble origins, the company maintains its reputation for integrity, reliability, employee ownership, and customer service. For UPS, the future promises even more accomplishments as the next chapter in the company’s history is written.

The Takeaway: Always strive for high readability. As you write, watch word length and sentence length. As you edit, look for long words that should be short words. Try to break up sentences longer than 20 words. Always aim for an FRE score above 50. Settle for 30 to 50 if the topic requires it. But don’t willingly go below 30. For most readers, below 30 is too hard to read.

*FRE is even built into Microsoft Word.

**If you know of a company that consistently scores above 40, please identify the company, in a comment on this post. I would appreciate it very much. I would like to give the company some well-deserved credit.

1 comment:

  1. Great information to have, thank you for sharing it with us.

    A book I found very helpful is Fiction Writer's Brainstormer by James V. Smith Jr

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