by Adam Zouak
There is nothing more frustrating than receiving a communications email that should draw me in and engage me, but instead, makes me feel even more like I don’t belong. On a regular basis, I will get a long email from some organization that I’m a part of and though it might have the most brilliant phrasing in the world, my brain sees a brick wall of dense glyphs.
Dyslexics make up about 15% of the general population, and can be even more prevalent among specific groups such as CEOs (about 25%) and technical professionals (even higher in some areas). When it comes to communications, a few simple changes can make a world of difference and make your content accessible as well as engaging for everyone.
Before I share my 5 tips for making your content more accessible for dyslexics like me, allow me to share some context.
Quick Background for Context
At the age of 17, I was informed I was dyslexic. The news was delivered like I had a terminal disease and came wrapped in an apologetic forecast of a very limited future ahead. Unable to accept that I was doomed, and years away from understanding my brain was optimized for 3D processing over flat, one-dimensional text, I pushed forward to see where the limit was. If I was doomed, then I would face it, not cower.
I went to a world-renowned university, earned my Honors Bachelor’s in Computer Science and Philosophy. There were challenges, but I learned to mentally model people instead of reading 300 pages per week. Maybe it was in the real world that I would fail, so I went to Silicon Valley. No doom there either.
Later I joined Microsoft, had the honor of leading the world’s first digital library project for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and built a business or two afterward. No doom. Then I faced my final frontier: writing. I wrote and published 12 books, toured the country, and then got back into tech, which is how I ended up as the CTO of Sparrow. Maybe the doom’s coming?
I’ve been a vocal dyslexic along the way, sharing my story of how I leverage the advantages and work around the tradeoffs in the hopes that others can start where I’ve managed to get myself to. Once you understand how a system works, you can understand how to optimize for it.
How This One Dyslexic’s Brain Handle Words
To set the stage for the tips below, I want to share how my brain processes words. I don’t know if it’s like this for all dyslexics, but a frame of reference can be helpful.
When a typical reader, like my wife, is reading something she sees a paragraph, the sentences, the words, and then absorbs a word. That word is a series of individual letters that maps to textual meaning in her head, and the letters, and letter groupings, map to sounds in her head. Her eyes move from word to word, naturally flowing from left to right, with meaning compiling in her mind as she goes.
My brain works differently. I don’t have a native understanding of text, my mind is all images, and it doesn’t naturally flow from left to right. When I see a block of large dark glyph (a paragraph is a single image), I know to break it up into smaller glyphs. Then I try to look up a single glyph in my mental database to find out what it maps to. Sometimes it will map to meaning and sometimes to sound, which then I have to look up in another database for what meaning I associate with that sound. And here’s the thing: my lookup function has a high error rate.
I can read the following sentence: “They put the groceries in the house,” and get a confused look on my face because what I ended up with was “They put the food inside the rodent.” How? Because when I saw the image “house” it got incorrectly looked up as “mouse”, and my brain then said the sound was rodent (because of the relationship between those words). Then I sit there wondering how those people could be so strange.
Tip #1 Break up the Monster Paragraphs, Please
Have you ever wondered why people will pick up a new book and flip through it? They aren’t reading it, they’re just looking at it. But what are they looking for? Even if you ask, they likely won’t know. The answer is they are intuitively looking at the word density, and how many pages are very dense. Why? Because it’s all about evaluating the cognitive load of reading the material. How much energy and effort is it going to take, and is it worth the potential reward?
There is one organization in my personal life that, on a regular basis, sends our family emails that are filled with Godzilla Paragraphs. Every time, I end up having to ask my wife to go through them because my brain starts running around like a three-year-old yelling “Nooo!”
Breaking up paragraphs, even if it violates rules of grammatical purity, can make a profound difference in readability. I usually recommend having only 3 paragraphs per section, if possible, so that the brain can forecast how much effort it’s going to take to get to the next section (a form of reward in itself).
Tip #2 – Less, More Often
As the CTO for Sparrow, I have had the distinct pleasure of spending time with communicators and hearing about their challenges. It’s not uncommon for them to have a lot to share in very little time, so they author a newsletter, an email, or a news post that’s 2,500 words of solid text and move on to the next thing.
Break it up. Give yourself a limit of 500 words, for example. It’s much easier to consume a series than to consume a single large block. Even as a wall of words, it’s less intimidating.
For those large posts that are being broken up into a series, put a link to the previous article at the top. Think of it as the first 60 seconds of a serialized TV show, “Previously on Awesome Communications.” It will draw people back to the other posts.
Tip #3 – There’s Always Time For Good Headers
While guidelines for header usage are a part of most communication style-guides I’ve seen, often they are used to organize information instead of breaking it up into more readable chunks. It’s a subtle difference, but their purpose (in my opinion) is to forecast relationships to the reader just before they get there.
For example, a subtle color difference between the text and the header, helps to communicate a transition to the next idea. For me, it also allows me to judge whether or not whether I can pause, because I’ve finished a logical block, or if I should keep going.
After those headers, try to limit the number of paragraphs to three (four max). It makes it easier to process, easy to anticipate the amount of energy needed, and makes it less intimidating. If you scan this article, you’ll notice I’ve done exactly that.
Tip #4 – Conversational Tone
When there is text, let’s get rid of the tie and fancy shoes and just have a casual conversation. That’s easier on the brain, particularly one that might jump around. Conversations follow a reasonably predictable pattern, and that means that a mind that needs to keep correcting itself has a better chance of following along.
In Sparrow, we believe this to be so important that we actually built a feature to let communicators know the tone, sentiment, grade level, and more to make sure that they are hitting the mark they are aiming for.
Tip #5 – Flexible Font Size
Lastly, let the user adjust the font size, please. I understand the importance of standardized styles, but flexibility is important.
In my early days at Microsoft, I had the pleasure of meeting a reading researcher named Bill Hill. He was a brilliant guy with a big beard who walked the halls of Redmond with the ancestor of modern tablets; it was just cables, exposed circuitry, and a dismantled screen. When I went up to ask him a question, he gave me a quizzical look that stopped me cold.
“The apertures of your eyes are huge,” he said in his thick Scottish brogue. “Do you increase the font-size to adjust? I bet you’re dyslexic. That’ll help, removes distraction and unnecessary visual noise, if you don’t know. Now, what was your question?”
I completely forgot my question after that. His quick point hit me so profoundly that I ended up putting aside my weird sense of embarrassment at dramatically increasing the font size on my screens, and I found it made a difference. A big one.
Bonus Tip #6 – Video
I’m not a fan of a post with just a header and a video attached but include a paragraph to give some context and tee it up, and you’ve got me. A short daily video message can be very engaging, and does not need to be professionally made. Give me a video recorded from a webcam, even with bloopers in it, and it’ll seem all the more human and relatable.
A Reader’s Perspective
At the end of the day, we have a wealth of different types of readers in those we’re trying to connect with. Small adjustments can be huge for some people, drawing them in and making them feel that the organization is trying to connect with them. Hopefully, I’ve given you a few ideas. Best of luck.
Considering a new communications platform like Sparrow can feel like a daunting task, but it shouldn’t. We are here to support you through your decision making journey, and when you’re ready, are able to quickly and easily put in our communication system, unifying your channels and enabling you to take on the world. At Sparrow, we believe that corporate communications can be transformative. Sparrow – Built for Communicators. Book a conversation with us today.