Editor’s Note: Todd Rogers is professor of public policy at Harvard University and chief scientist at EveryDay Labs, a behavioral science company focused on parent communication in education. The views expressed in this opinion are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I have dozens of half-read emails in my inbox about coronavirus from schools, airlines and other organizations. I sincerely believe that most of the senders had clear objectives for these messages and clear facts they wanted me to understand. Unfortunately, something got lost between their intentions and my comprehension.
As a behavioral scientist, I study how people make decisions and process information, and I develop communications to change behavior for the better.
And if there’s one lesson all the coronavirus email writers should take, it’s this: Messages should be as easy to understand as possible. This is difficult in normal times – and is no doubt much more so with facts on the ground changing as rapidly as they are.
But it also requires recognizing that human beings face several constraints. First, people have limited attention. This means our attention can be depleted and derailed, and that we cannot focus on several things at once – even though we think we can. Given this, when people are faced with a long, convoluted message, the chances are slim that they will read it, understand it and remember it.
Additionally, people have limited time. We are in the midst of a epidemic of busy-ness, as we race from one task to the next to the next. Add to that anxiety about this health pandemic, and it is not surprising that we do not read the latest treatise from our company, school or government about coronavirus.
And people differ in how accessible written words are to them. Many messages are written in superfluous erudite verbiage (read: unnecessary fancy words). This is a problem when one in seven American adults struggles with literacy. Add to that that one in five people living in America speaks a language other than English at home.
As an illustration of how potent simplifying messaging can be, Carly Robinson at Harvard, Jessica Lasky-Fink of the University of California, Berkeley, Hedy Chang of Attendance Works and I conducted an experiment with a large school district, in which we rewrote a state-required notification about attendance.
All schools in California are required to send a truancy notification to families after a student is late or absent three times. The state legislature offered recommended language for the notice that was written at a college-reading level and contained 342 words in seven-point font. We rewrote the letter at a 5th grade reading level, in 14-point font and with half as many words. We then randomly assigned 131,312 families to either receive the state-recommended language or a version of our simplified letter.
The best version of our simplified letters was an estimated 40% more effective at reducing absences during the subsequent 30 days than the state-recommended language. Writing with an understanding of how humans work turns out to be more effective than writing with the sole goal of complying with the delivery of mandatory written information.
So, what can be done to make coronavirus messages, so critical to the functioning of our country right now, easier to understand – and more likely to be read?
- Write in the most accessible way possible. Use the Flesch-Kincaid readability test (built into Microsoft Word and Google Docs) to test the reading-level complexity of your writing.
- Use as few words as possible. Shorter messages are more likely to be read (see the long email in your inbox from three months ago that you still have not read).
- Write in a larger font. This makes long messages look ridiculous and makes it easier to read for recipients with eyesight issues. It also reduces the chance of the accidental – but way too common – occurrence of emails appearing in inboxes with absurdly small font.
- Eliminate gratuitous borders and images. These can often distract from the message you are trying to send.
- Use a clear structure. People skim, so help them. As opposed to a multi-paragraph email written in normal prose, consider categorizing information under headings like, “What we want you to know” (or just “KNOW”) and “what we would like you to do” (or, concisely, “DO”). Consider putting content within each category in bullet points.
French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once apologized in a letter to a friend: “I am writing you a long letter because I don’t have time to write a short one.” While such a faux pas may have been accepted in 17th century personal correspondence, today we should demand better – particularly for conveying critical information about health, schools, and work. Communicators, please don’t forget that your readers are human, and adjust your messages accordingly.