I believe that many of the people visiting my business website have weak reading skills. What’s the most important thing I can do TODAY to make them feel at home?

We’ll get to the answer to that question in just a moment, but first: a test. Grab a piece of scrap paper and a pen or pencil. I’m serious. Do it now, before you read any farther.

There will be some mathematics involved, but you are not allowed to use a calculator.

This is a high-stakes test, too. If you don’t pass it, you’re probably not going to get any value out of this essay. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re learning the wrong lessons from every page you’ve been reading on this site.

You have only thirty seconds. Time starts…now.

  • Write down the number 12. This is the first number in the series.
  • The rule for writing down the next number is as follows: double the current number, then add one.
  • As quickly as you can, write down the next three numbers in the series. Hurry up! Your time is running out.
  • Finally: circle all the even numbers you wrote down. How many numbers did you circle?

What This Test Reveals

As you will already have deduced, the purpose of the test is not to grade your ability with arithmetic. Although, come to mention it, if you circled more than one number—the starting number, 12—then you made a mistake somewhere; all the subsequent numbers must be odd, not even. No, the purpose of the test is to push you a little off-balance and then make you complete a task under stressful circumstances.

So, to ratchet up the stress, we told you that the test would be about mathematics—probably not your strongest skill area—and then hinted that the level of math might be challenging (“you are not allowed to use a calculator”). We said you only get half a minute to finish, and then reinforced this with commands to work even faster. And we told you directly that successful completion would have profound implications for your future success (and I don’t think that was too much exaggeration, as we shall see).

Did you feel anxious? A little sweat on your palms? Good. That was the purpose of your test.

This Is What Your Clients Experience When They Visit Your Website

Let’s be honest here: many people hate to read. A widely quoted figure is that about 15 percent of the adult U.S. population is fully literate, roughly equal to a college undergraduate level. Another 20 percent or so are functionally illiterate. That leaves a huge majority, on the order of 65 percent of all adults, who can read at a lower level if they must, but who prefer to avoid reading when possible.

These are your potential clients and customers.

Only desperation could drive such a person to your website for information. Only a driving need to know something in your area of expertise could make a non-reader force himself through the agony of puzzling out the text on your site. These people crucially need answers to potentially life-changing questions, such as:

  • Do I have to lose my life savings to pay for my medical care after the accident?
  • Will I be going to prison?
  • Is it cancer?
  • Will I ever walk again?
  • Can my husband walk out and leave me and the kids penniless?
  • Will my husband be okay in the nursing home?
  • Will my deadbeat brother-in-law take over my business after I’m gone?

The analogy between the stress suffered by readers looking for answers to life’s gravest problems and the stress that you felt when suddenly hijacked into a math test isn’t perfect; it’s only suggestive. But if, right now, you do not feel compassion for your website users who are attempting the hardest thing they know—reading—in order to find the help they thirst for, then you’re numb to the purpose of your website and your marketing plan. If you don’t have empathy for these forlorn and despairing people, they will soon scatter off to your competitors.

Step One: Leave No Acronym Unexplained

The first step when dealing with lower-skilled readers is to give them every bit of help they may need. That means you must offer them help with reading, along with offering to help them with their problems. If they can’t understand your website, how will they decide to hire you?

We have written elsewhere about how a great marketing writer will take pains to explain professional jargon in context in order to strengthen communication. Now take that one step further, and look at the common abbreviations and acronyms that are used in your line of work. Every page on your website on which that term appears must explain what it stands for: not only by giving a word-by-word description, but also by telling the reader why this term is so important and so often used that it has a short form.

For example, if you are an attorney who frequently deals with disability cases, you probably explain on your home page or practice area landing page that SSDI stands for the Social Security Disability Insurance program. That’s good, but not good enough. You cannot guarantee that a new reader will land on one of those pages the first time he visits your site; indeed, those pages may not be among the first dozen he encounters. If you leave him bewildered, he will seek out another lawyer, one more helpful. So don’t let that happen: explain every abbreviation and every acronym in context the first time you use it on every webpage.

I would actually go one step farther and suggest you don’t use routine abbreviations at all. Write Avenue instead of Ave., November instead of Nov., and Tuesday instead of Tue. Show your readers that you are willing to take pains and want to meet them more than halfway to make sure your message gets through. That’s never a bad marketing strategy.

If you found this article thought-provoking, please take the time to read more of our collected pieces on writing professional web content. You may wish to begin with our related articles referenced on this page.