Why Foundation Bigs Should Use Little Words
"There's a great power in words,” said the 19th Century humorist Josh Billings, “-- if you don't hitch too many of them together."
If Billings were around today, he would love the Flesch Score.
The Flesch Score – aka the Flesch Reading Ease scale — tells you how readable something is. It works on a scale of 0-100. The more readable a piece of text, the higher the score. If used right, it might just change the way the non-profit world works.
Flesch appears on every Microsoft Word toolbar on Earth. Click into Tools. Go to Spelling and Grammar. Click through the prompts. After the spell-check, bingo — your Flesch Score appears. (If that doesn’t work, ask a child to help you.)
The most readable things in the world are in the high 60s, the 70s, and above. (The first chapters of the Book of Genesis, King James version, for example, has a Flesch Score of 93.3.)
The most dismally thick writing scores in the 20s and below. Most writing in the known universe falls somewhere in between. That’s because most people who write aren’t gods, and most aren’t dismally thick.
Plain-English guru Rudolph Flesch (“Why Johnnie Can’t Read”) invented the tool in the 1940s to promote clear writing. Flesch measures sentence length (shorter is better), and word length (ditto). What it adds up to, in the end, is whether just plain folks can understand what you’re saying.
What does this have to do with foundations? Everything, it seems to me.
In the secular world, foundations are the closest thing we have to god-folk. They are blessed with the use of huge piles of money to hand out to those in need, and, even better, to those who have what it takes to change things, and lives, for good. The people whose lives they change include, in great numbers, the Common Man (and Woman), the middle class, on down to your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Regular people who use regular words.
But when it comes to foundations, they tend to hitch too many words together. And the ones they hitch together tend to be long. And vague. And full of jargon. Jargon is a useful word. Its roots, way back in embryonic etymology, intertwine with the roots of the word that gave us gargle. As any user of mouthwash knows, this is the bubbling of liquid in the throat, and God help you if while you were doing it, you were asked to recite the Declaration of Independence (or “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for that matter). Jargon and gargle are also related to “gargoyle,” those grotesque carved figures on buildings, often with open mouths, which, way back in the day, worked as spouts to “spit” the rainwater (or mouthwash) out and away from the walls.
So, now that we have a pretty sound image of what gargling gargoyles of jargon really do, it should be clear why it isn’t a good thing for communicating.
If you asked George Orwell why garglers do it, he would say (as he did in his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”):
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. Where there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
This is not to suggest that foundation folk are in any way insincere. Some use muddy language as a smokescreen to give them room to maneuver — to make whatever case they have, to make the grants they want to make. If you can’t understand what they’re saying, you can’t pin them down. Or say they’re wrong.
Some do it because they think using five-dollar words instead of 50-cent words makes them look smarter. But most just do it because, well, that’s what everyone else does.
They got infected with the virus of un-speak being spouted all around them. By the grant-seekers they serve. By other foundation folk. By bureaucracies. By academics.
The next thing you know, un-speak has just become the thing to say and do. Which leads us back to the Flesch Score.
Because so much un-speak has many syllables, if you simply get rid of words with three or more, you can easily raise your score.
But here comes the tricky part:
Flesch does not have a brain.
It can’t think.
It cannot tell the right word from the wrong word.
It does not sift the poetry from the muck.
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” – Thomas Paine
(Flesch Score: 100)
The girl, water man, in a horse set grass.
(Also Flesch: 100)
So, if someone were to use short jargon (i.e., metric, rubric, cohort, mode, scale, etc.), they would ipso facto get a higher Flesch Score than if they went with tumbling sheets of polysyllabic bubble-wrap, i.e., strategic evaluation, implementation of essential infrastructure, educational trajectories. (This italic phrase, Flesch: 0).
In other words, don’t just delete multiple syllables. Find the right word to put in their place.
One morning, just to amuse myself, I pointed to a map, took the spot my finger landed on, then found the largest foundation within 250 miles. I clicked on the group’s news releases.
Now, in foundations, as in most organizations, news releases are where the work the group does gets mulched into common language so that the rest of the world can learn all about how those great and good things shake down in real life.
At the place I chose — let’s call it Foundation X — I did a Flesch Scoring on the first two paragraphs, 115 words long, of a recent release.
Which pretty much means this: What they wrote would be just as unintelligible to a nuclear physicist as it would be to a banana slug. On a scale of 0 -100, it is, pure and simple, unreadable.
But here’s the other thing: In those first 115 words of the news release – and 115 words can sum up any story — this appears:
Initiative, enable increased numbers, participate, financial stability, economic mobility, fostering positive outcomes, national nonprofit organization, partners with community organizations, economic opportunities, web-based technology, case management services, income-enhancing public, private benefits.That’s 30 words. Thirty words with Flesch Score: 0.
Which means that nearly a third of the words of the first 115 are un-words. Jargon. Gargoyles. Words that are (individually as well as collectively) the lexiconic equivalent of the dusty big-rig on the side of the road across whose back window someone has traced the words: WASH ME!
Seriously – how can anyone know if they are helping humanity when they use words that no one, not even them, really understand?
I started a new consulting job at a large foundation not long ago, and was delighted to find a bright young staff hellbent on — raising their Flesch Scores!
I almost fell over.
It got me thinking:
What if every foundation writer used Flesch with the same force of habit with which they brush their teeth? What if Foundation Bigs ruled that any piece of writing within their walls had to have, at the very least, a Flesch 35? And that every bit going out to the people across the amber waves of grain had to have a Flesch 45?
Or even a Flesch 50?
People all over this land would be able to see what foundations do. Their trustees could see if it was all working right. And if it wasn’t, someone could see, plain as day, how to fix it.
Further, both the folks who give money and those who receive it could see, perhaps for the first time, just how good philanthropy really is.
It would be a Lincoln-Whitman love-fest.
What a wonderful — and readable — world it would be.
How do we do it? One writer at a time.
Essay Above, Flesch: 71.5
Mary Ann Hogan is a Florida-based story coach who consults nationally with news organizations, foundations, museums, universities, and others who have true stories to tell. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.