Readability has hit the headlines this week. There's a new study examining government communications. The study suggested that more formal language increased engagement in readers. What does this say about readability? 

What was the Formality Study?

A recent study found that using formal language in government communications can increase engagement. At first, this seems to undo all the good that readability has done. But the findings actually support plain language best practices for government agencies.

The study is called The Formality Effect. It offers a new perspective on effective government communications.

It found that formality in government communications increases engagement. But it notes that using plain language is still best practice. Readability best practices make the government more accessible. 

The study also outlines plain language guidelines for government communications. It suggests that government agencies should adopt their own testing methods. Ones that have their constituents’ best interests in mind. 

Formality Versus Complexity

The distinction between formality and complexity is an important issue. Increasingly government agencies are aiming to be more inclusive. Experts have consistently recommended the use of plain language and excellent UX. 

In the context of government communications, formality refers to tone and presentation. A formal message may use some technical vocabulary. It could also have a more serious tone. Formality can also refer to the visual aesthetics of the message. Think logos, seals, or official letterheads. 

Complexity refers to how difficult the document is to understand. 

The author of the study is Elizabeth Linos. She notes that formality and complexity are different concepts.

Complexity is often defined in terms of reading level. That’s what we aim to reduce with good readability. A higher reading level means more complex language. Formality is much more about tone and aesthetics. 

“We don’t want this paper to be misunderstood as a vote in favour of more complexity,” Linos said.

She believes that plain language and a formal aesthetic can coexist. Plain language is about clarity and simplicity. A document with a low reading level can have a formal presentation and tone of voice.

How can I write formally and still be readable?

Enter our clever tone analysis on Readable. This is built into our Swiss Army Knife of an editor. Readable provides a roadmap. You can follow tone guidance and ensure the broadest audience reach.

Tone analysis shows whether the tone is formal, conversational or neutral. Conversational text uses more pronouns and fewer prepositions, among other differences.

In your writing, aim to:

  • be direct with your reader
  • be transparent
  • cover the topic thoroughly
  • ensure your spelling and grammar are polished

Try to avoid contractions, using full words instead. For example, we’ve used the word ‘comms’ a couple of times. In a government document, that would be the full word ‘communications’. Our articles serve a different purpose to government communications. The occasional contraction is within our friendly tone of voice. 

If you’re writing for the general public, it is important that you can be understood. Transparency is key. Formal language can help to build credibility and trust. 

If you would like to learn more about tone, head to our blog. We have content about striking the right tone to connect with your audience. This post shows the Readable tone sliders in action. For more information around readability in politics, check out this post about speech clarity at the UN

Dave Child

Dave is the founder of Readable and has been building websites since the early 90s. He’s one of those fortunate people who gets to do what he loves for a living.