In April 2021, Unbounce (a landing page builder) released a report analyzing 34,000 landing pages to discover what helped best with conversion. The report found a noticeably large increase in conversion rates when brands wrote content at a 5th-grade reading level.
Easier to read content makes it easier to understand, which led to more conversions...simple, right?
However, telling copywriters to dumb down their writing isn't always the right approach, nor does it typically reflect brand guidelines succinctly. Concise writing and 'simple' writing are not always the same thing—so, how do we find a way to make complex ideas accessible without losing our identity?
We've yet to meet a MarComms team that had a 5th grader producing content, but given the Unbounce analysis, it is a worthwhile exercise to test whether your content is universally understandable...even to a child. Even if we are grappling with a new complex topic, we can consider a useful technique for our learning process and communications strategy:
Learn by teaching.
One of the simplest, and quickest ways to learn something effectively stems from Richard Feynman (1918-1988): A physicist, author, philosopher, and 'No Ordinary Genius'.
Feynman made a huge impact as a physicist, but outside of his field he also introduced a technique that guided effective learning and teaching. I.e. His method for teaching effectively is ideal for communicating complex ideas with ease, but also for the teacher themselves to improve their knowledge.
The 'Feynman Technique' involves four simple steps:
1. Identify the topic.
2. Teach it to a child.
3. Identify your knowledge gaps.
4. Organize your explanation, simplify it, and refine it.
Here's how it works in detail:
Firstly, choose the subject you'd like to communicate. This can be a new topic that you wish to learn or existing knowledge you wish to test yourself on.
Ideally, you should hone in and pick something as 'narrow' as possible. If your topic is too broad, or abstract, then it'll lead to broad and abstract understandings. By picking niche subject matter, you can convey depth and bolster your knowledge whilst adding insightful learning opportunities.
Once you have your clearly defined topic, your aim is to be able to teach it to a child. Consider all you know about the subject, and whether you have all the knowledge needed to simplify it into a digestible format.
If you're struggling to gauge the writing level of your content, we'd recommend using the Hemingway Editor writing tool to analyse the average grade of your output.
Whilst explaining your concept to a 5th grader would be a great test, you can also speak to those outside your field of expertise. Your focus will be on using plain language (by removing jargon), and aim to simplify your wording. You'll often find that to explain one concept, you might have to explain three adjacent concepts—again, you should do this as simply as possible.
Note: As an alternative, you could simply write down an explanation of the topic and analyse how easy it is to understand. Imagine you were presenting it to a child, a coworker, an elderly relative, and a professional from another field...like an astronaut or doctor. If you're confident that all personas could understand the language used, then you will be able to be assured in your knowledge and communication skills.
Thirdly, we begin dissecting the explanation we have just given. Our aim here is to ensure we are speaking with clarity and completely. Through analysis of our own explanations we can strengthen our content and own understanding.
For example, we may discover that we're unable to fully explain certain sections of the topic and that perhaps we need to perform more research into the subject matter. There may still be domain-specific or complicated vocabulary that we've been unable to avoid, and as such the explanation may not yet be easy enough for a child to understand.
By taking a step back and viewing the explanation objectively we should ask how happy we are with our knowledge and explanation, and how complete our grasp on the topic seems through our attempt to communicate it.
Having analysed our previous attempts to explain the topic, we are now able to refine our explanation into something more robust. Any missing information can be added. Anything vague can be strengthened. Jargon can be simplified, and overall your knowledge should be reorganised in the easiest way for your audience to understand it.
Feynman once said:
You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
This is a reminder to focus your teaching efforts on what matters. The beauty of explaining to children is that they'll often bluntly cut through any 'intelligent fog'—by that we mean they'll ask obvious, simple questions that others may be afraid to incase they look silly.
Simon Sinek proudly champions 'looking like the idiot' in a room, because he believes that as business professionals we're all too scared to admit that we might not know a lot. If he doesn't understand jargon, or something complex, he's happy to interupt to ask for it to be simplified...and chances are many C level professionals around the table also had no idea either but were too proud or embarrassed to say so!
For all his wisdom, Feynman once retorted:
I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.
Again, this reiterates the importance of being to explain concepts clearly. It not only strengthens our understanding of a topic, but ensures we can communicate effectively with the widest possible audience.
Digital amnesia is rife in modern society because our technology is so brilliantly addictive and efficient. With the Feynman technique, you're fighting against lazy habits of leaning on past learnings as absolute...but by challenging yourself to properly explain your knowledge in a universal manner you'll likely find yourself revisiting previous books and learning materials—and undoubtably strengthening your knowledge. There's also a good chance you'll rediscover why you wanted to learn about the subject in the first place, and hopefully you'll reignite various passions and motivations.
Feynman's method of teaching to learn can be easily adapted for pursuing deep work, as well as helping you improve your knowledge on entirely new study areas. A helpful tip is to dedicate a virtual workspace, or a notebook, to developing your knowledge and ideas. Think of it as a continuous learning space where your thinking can be evolved and refined. Richard Feynman famously had a notebook titled 'Things I don't Know About'. Yet although this was his starting point, by the end of writing in his notebook, he'd organised key fundamentals about topics previously outside his grasp—leaving him with new, useful knowledge.
Taking the earlier advice of picking a niche rather than a broad area, we'll return to relevant Unbounce report. It is clear that the idea of communicating with content at a 5th grade level is absolutely relevant with Feynman's concept of teaching a concept to a child. So, what can be learned here?
Your brand, your service, your product, is your piece of expertise. And much like sharing knowledge on ideas, facts, and events, you can communicate your own IP with the Feynman method. Remember that you think about your business on a daily basis, and understand a great degree of nuances that the general public won't—so, when explaining what you do, how you do it, and why you do it, spell it out in simple accessible language. Test your messaging. Refine your messaging. View your landing page as your elevator pitch to a 5th grader. People are only likely to get truly excited about your business once they understand what you're trying to explain.
As we stated earlier, it is better to hone in on a narrow area of subject matter rather than convey a broad understanding. There are undoubtedly benefits to being a 'master of one', and developing this approach to master multiple areas of niche knowledge. When it comes to how you communicate your knowledge, you have the added benefit of crafting highly insightful content for your brand—and positioning yourself as a thought leader through the carefully curated expert explanations.
A key consideration here is also SEO.
Niche content has less competition, and you're more likely to retain traffic and gain referrals when your guides are easy to understand. On the contrast, writing loosely about large topics is unlikely to give the reader much value...think of it this way, your content should be the only information they need to fully understand your chosen topic.
Aside from developing a useful learning and explaining technique, Fenyman achieved some remarkable things in his life.
He is credited with pioneering the entire field of Quantum Electrodynamics. During the 1940s, his famous 'Feynman Diagram' gave visual clarification to the behaviour of subatomic particles in a highly needed, accessible manner. Later, he earned a share of a Nobel Prize (1965) for his work in the interaction of light and matter. The cause of the 'Challenger' space shuttle disaster was found partly through his research and explanations, and he has been credited with directly influencing the fields of quantum computing, particle physics and nanotechnology.
Despite being a brilliant thinker and physicist, his lectures at California's Institute of Technology were actually aimed at those with little to no knowledge of deep science or participle physics. His ability to explain complex ideas to anyone was key in driving forward new generations of passionate scientists, that may have otherwise found much subject matter overwhelming muddled or inaccessible.
His remarkable life is portrayed further in Christopher Syke's biography of him: No Ordinary Genius.
As a parting quote, once again from Feynman:
Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.