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Sunday, August 06, 2006

How-to Make Excellent Marketing Literature 37% More Readable


For our first installment of Copywriting Tune-ups, we focus on a product called Halo from Hewlett Packard (HP). Why choose HP? They're #1 on the Silicon Valley 150. Why Halo ? When software helps people overcome barriers of time, distance and culture, I get excited and writing about it is irresistible.

We look at the white paper explaining how Halo marks a major advance in business collaboration technology but first, let's answer the question, "What is Halo?" To quote HP:

The Halo studio—designed by DreamWorks Animation in partnership with HP—provides life-size, real-time, eye-to-eye conferencing with outstanding audio and no delay. Halo gives the sense of being in the same room together...

When you buy Halo studios from HP you connect your organization in a way that's never been possible before. Halo can transform how your business works by bringing people together frequently and spontaneously to collaborate in the most natural way.

This white paper is obviously top notch. The challenge is how to make it even better.

Scanning it the first time, I felt something subtle could be improved but wasn't sure what. Then, it hit me – the paper uses the passive voice. Giving the paper an active voice makes it more readable, as demonstrated below.

Finally, if you like irony, you might find the Wrap-up to this post a touch humorous.

Copywriting Tune-up

The passive voice subtly mutes the original as if a Plexiglas wall was shielding us from the full force of what the writer wants us to feel:


Though in most cases, Halo is purchased initially for senior management, businesses also report cultural changes across the company, its customers, vendors and strategic partners.

Human Resources staff use the Halo studio to interview applicants instead of flying them in for interviews. Managers eliminate travel by conducting performance appraisals and contract negotiations in Halo rooms. Projects with vendors can be completed quickly with no in-person meetings at all.

At the same time, relationships develop, as if all of the project work were done in the same location. Companies that have gone through mergers or acquisitions report that Halo has
brought the organizational cultures together because, even though not everyone affected by mergers can travel to establish new work
relationships, they can do so using the Halo suites.

Usually, companies purchase Halo for senior management. A short time later, cultural changes spread across the company, its customers, vendors and key partners.

Human Resources staff use the Halo studio to interview applicants instead of flying them in for interviews. To eliminate travel, managers conduct performance appraisals and contract negotiations in Halo rooms. Projects with vendors finish quickly with no in-person meetings.

At the same time, new social networks form. The quality of work from these teams reaches parity with that of teams in a single location.

Companies recently merged or acquired report Halo has brought their cultures together because people unable to travel as a way of establishing new relationships achieve the same thing using Halo suites.

Get the Scoop on Readability Statistics

Before we take a closer look at the Readability Statistics pictured above, let's explain the last two measures. Throughout the 20th Century, Rudolf Flesch championed clarity in writing by simplifying sentence structures, selecting more common words, and emphasizing flow. The Flesch Reading Ease index runs from 1-100: the higher the number, the easier to read. The Flesch Kincaid Grade Level specifies the minimum reading level needed to follow a passage comfortably.

Need a Fast Grammar Lesson on Passive Voice?

The after passage removes the Plexiglas wall by eliminating the passive voice. If your grammar is a little rusty regarding the passive voice, English Grammar Online offers a simple definition with lots of examples. The passive voice creates a barrier to understanding because it leaves the subject of a sentence unknown.

Boost Readability - Make the Passive Voice Active

The screenshots above tell the story. Our reward for making the passive voice active - Flesch Reading Ease index improves by 37%.

You'll find the passive voice in scholarly writing. It makes sense the writer would choose the passive voice as white papers are meant to appear objective and free from sales hype.

Still, I contend it's okay to write white papers with an active voice.

First, in a world where everyone is starved for time and attention spans are short, we want readers to absorb the spirit of our writing without anything to impede their understanding.

Second, it's no secret white papers in the technology sector are meant to generate interest and are therefore "non-sales sales tools." We can use an active voice while remaining mindful of white paper etiquette.

So, do you consider your marketing materials to be excellent? Whether they are or not, picture what a 37% spike in readability could do for your business.


OK, I promised irony.

Doesn't It seem ironic a technology capable of creating this sense of intimacy would have its literature written in the passive voice?

Someday, the ability to beam people from place to place as envisioned by Star Trek will arrive. They'll need a white paper. Will they write it in the passive voice?

To your marketing success,

Eric Rosen
Clear Crisp Communications
Tel: 408.506.0719
Fax: 814.253.5142
Email: eric.rosen AT
Easier to Read Means More Sales and Leads


At 10:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Eric;

Great comments and great suggestions for the HP white paper. I might also suggest they make it a bit easier to read. Right now it is just a bunch of long paragraphs that kinda make ones eyes gloss over.

Keep up the good work.

Michael Stelzner

At 1:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This looks really interesting. Going to look into it, thanks.


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