Misleading information, unclear instructions, technical jargon and illegible print: these are all barriers that can stop older people accessing products and services. Apart from the obvious ethical problem – it is unacceptable for a civilised society to withhold important goods from citizens – it makes good business sense to value older consumers. The 65-plus age group represents 20% of the UK consumer population (those aged 16 and above) and is expected to rise to 25% by 20301.
As experts in written communication, members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) are well equipped to help ensure that texts meet the needs of target readers. The SfEP is launching a three-tier commercial package for organisations targeting older consumers. Comprising a communications audit, editorial consultancy and in-house training, the project kicks off with the publication of a booklet on communicating with older readers. Drawing on research and anecdotal evidence gathered with the help of SfEP members and editors from other English-speaking countries, Sarah Carr presents in this blog a list of 25 top tips. For more ideas, and advice on how to implement these in your work, watch out for the booklet!
- Do what you can to challenge attitudes towards ageing and older people.
Features of older people
- Understand the needs of older readers, remembering that they have widely varying abilities, and encompass two or even three generations.
- Take an inclusive approach to writing, suitable for all members of the public (sometimes known as ‘plain language’).
Purpose, content and structure
- Before you start writing, think about why you are doing so, what you want the text to achieve, and the best medium for this purpose.
- Plan your messages and ideas, ensuring they are clear and honest.
- Organise the content logically, using an appropriate structure and good navigational aids, and avoiding very long paragraphs.
Style and grammar: words and phrases
- Consider using graphics to help present your ideas.
- Omit redundant words, and use short, familiar words and phrases.
- Use jargon and abbreviations only when necessary, and explain each term when you first mention it.
- Ensure that you refer to people equally; failing to do so may not only offend readers (and so lose their attention) but also helps prolong inequality.
Style and grammar: sentences
- Ensure that you use good grammar, spelling and punctuation.
- Aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words, with some longer and shorter for variety and effect.
- Use strong verbs (rather than nominalisations/deverbal nouns, e.g. ‘decide’, not ‘make a decision’).
- Favour active verbs (‘the team decided’, not ‘it was decided by the team’), writing in the first and second person (‘I’/‘we’ and ‘you’) and phrasing points positively.
Layout and design
- Use a simple, clear font, in sentence case, at a size of 12 to 14 point, avoiding italics and underlining.
- Align text to the left, with lines of a reasonable length, and avoid splitting words between lines.
- Use white space effectively, for example to help show the logical structure of your text.
- For text on paper, use good-quality paper with a matt finish, ensuring a good level of contrast between background and ink colours.
- Keep images clear and simple, ensuring they do not stereotype older people.
Writing for the web
- Ensure it is easy to understand the structure of your website, and to navigate around the site.
- Think about web-specific aspects of layout and design, and the readers’ familiarity with using computers and the internet.
- Include text alternatives, e.g. audio and video.
Checking the suitability of your text
- Aim for a reading-age level of 12 to 14 years, using a readability formula (available in Word).
- Consider testing your text on a real audience, if time and money allow, or otherwise using plain-English editors to provide an expert opinion.
Acquiring or commissioning the skills
- For a professional and cost-effective service, commission support from SfEP members. And don’t forget our specialist training courses and publications!
1 Analysis by the Personal Finance Research Centre at Bristol University quoted in Age UK (2010) Golden Economy: The Consumer Marketplace in an Ageing Society (research by ILC-UK).
Sarah Carr works as a writer, editor and proofreader, specialising in plain English and business communication. She feels strongly that our society should value old age and older people more, and is saddened by its mysterious obsession with youth. As a practical demonstration of her principles, she refuses to dye her (increasingly) grey hair!
Proofread by SfEP ordinary member Louise Lubke Cuss.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.