Lowest common denominator tactics: worth it?

Even the most fantastic tone and voice won’t matter if your audience doesn’t understand a word you’re saying.

Back in my newspaper days, the powers that be would talk about appealing to the lowest common denominator. They didn’t want high-brow stories or big words in headlines; they knew that to sell loads of newspapers, you need to appeal to loads of people. And there’s more Average Joes out there than Oxbridge-educated professorial types.

Angela Colter from Electronic Ink did a series of user tests with people of varying literacy levels. She wanted to understand how to design a website for people who didn’t find reading all that easy, and the results of her research shows that users with low literacy levels struggle to complete basic tasks on websites that have content written for people with high literacy levels. Of course, making it easy to read was her first word of advice to fellow designers.

Remember different reading styles

I was once told of a metaphor that I think really explains this well. Your readers come to you in three speeds: runners, joggers and walkers. The runners will speed though, maybe looking at the headline and caption, potentially the first par. The joggers will come along and do the same, but read on a little, maybe skim the sub heads and the conclusion. But then there’s the walkers, who will read every single word on the page.

So, how is your content catering for the runners, the walkers and the joggers? How are you serving that content to your audience?

This is when keeping your copy and your language short, sharp and clear really comes into play. Use bullet lists where you can, and sub-heads to break up the copy.  Think about pull-quotes and calls to action. Do what you can to make your content easy to consume.

And a little insider’s tip, keeping on the storyteller’s theme: Hemingway is your new best friend. It’s an online app that will help you to assess the reading level of your copy.  Check it out; I hope you find it useful.

What were you saying about lowest common denominators?

Ah, yes. The reason you clicked.

The easy answer here seems a cop out, but it’s true: if you’re aiming for a mainstream audience and wanting mass appeal, then Plain English and easy reading material is likely the best option.

But if you’re talking to the C-suite, or university professors, or a highly educated audience, then using lowest common denominator tactics will only serve to put them off.

The simple things is to research your audience. Know them intimately. Write pen portraits. Have them in mind when you design your tone and style. Only then will you really know which way to go.