Does your writing pass the “mum” test?

Write for your mum: that’s a piece of advice we at Doris and Bertie often give our clients. So in our third post on readability, we thought we’d actually put some business writing to the “mum” test.

In our previous posts on readability and the parts of speech and what readability scores can and can’t tell you, we looked at two pieces of writing.

The first extract appeared in a report published by a well-known management consultancy. The second says the same thing, but in a much more readable way. Here they are again:

Leverage analytics to drive prediction
Use predictive analytics as a decision support tool to drive a forward-looking analysis of scenarios, response effectiveness, and critical correlations that can complicate or escalate events. Better understanding of the drivers of extreme events, whether external developments or internal process interactions, can help build a robust, flexible and dynamic crisis management program. The objective for enhanced analytics is not to predict events, but to help companies develop more meaningful warning indicators, and an increased awareness of their leverage in preventing or managing ‘runaway’ crises.

Learn from the past
If you know what causes crises, you can prepare for them. So analyse what’s happened in the past to help you predict what might happen in the future. It will let you spot the warning signs that a crisis is unfolding, so you can stop it escalating or even happening at all.

To test our view that the second version is more readable than the first, we sent both texts to a real-life mum. A retired nurse, our guinea pig is not an expert in business, but is intelligent and articulate.

We asked her to circle any phrases in either piece she didn’t understand. She did so, and exceeded the brief by providing her own commentary. Here’s what we received back:

For those of you who can’t decipher our mum’s scrawl, here’s what it says:

Note in margin of version 1

“all sounds like tosh”

Commentary on version 1

“I know all of these words individually but in this piece it all sounds like gobbledygook.”

Commentary on version 2

“So that’s what it was supposed to be saying. No. 1 might just as well have been written in ancient Aramaic for all the sense it made.”

Our rewrite passed the mum test, where the original failed spectacularly.

Are you confident your writing would pass the same test?

5 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Hi Clare, I think there’s a bigger question here than readability, and it probably answers why people in middle management write this nonsense.

    In most cases, when the nonsense is translated into words normal people can and would read, the actual message is either trite, or ‘bleeding obvious’ and doesn’t need saying at all. I think yours is a reasonable example of this.

    I see it every day I’m afraid. Companies using silly words to say things like we won’t buy businesses that will make a loss (eg. ensure our ongoing investments are value-driving etc etc) – or we did what we said we would do (delivered on our promises etc) – or we’ll try not to break the law (committed to ensuring we meet the legislation within the jurisdictions we operate etc).

    Unfortunately, when they see the translation of their trite nonsense, they don’t very much like it. So what do we do?

  2. Steve says:

    Nice piece. I think our Richard is onto something. When I was in charge of deblustering a previous MDs words, I’d leave a bit of blather in a) to keep him happy and b) well, because there’s a danger is it went beyond simple and into simplistic. And who wants to pay bick bucks for the blindingly obvious?

    The reader has their own part to play in this self-fuelling un-virtuous circle. They’re in turn spending someone else’s money, and like it to sound a little bit hard at least.

  3. Friya says:

    Brilliant! The Mum Test is one we regularly keep in mind where I work.

    We write copy about cutting edge technology in a human and friendly way, which means our mums, grandpas and other straight talking people need to be able to understand it.

    If my mum couldn’t understand how to reconfigure her fibre optic broadband connection from my copy, I haven’t done my job.

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    Richard, Steve. Excellent points. The scary thing is, my example comes from one of the top management consultancy firms, which makes millions from churning out this crap. Perhaps we’re in the wrong business?

    Friya – I wonder if there’s a business idea in there. Perhaps we can assemble a board of mums for verbose corporations to run their writing by?

  5. […] I lost my mum to bowel cancer last summer, so I might be doubly […]

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