As a regular Facebook user, I was recently shocked to be served some insurance ads for seniors. Why are they showing these to me? I asked myself. Then it dawned on me. Of course! I’m 51!
But more shocking than the ads themselves were the images used to depict people over 50. I ran to the mirror: Surely, I don’t look like that? I’m not grey, sad and miserable. Or sit in a rocking chair. But whilst I’d like to think that 50 is the new 28, apparently, only 10% of Australia’s communication spend is aimed at older people.
Back to the insurance ad: I guess I should be glad that at least someone’s paying attention. Yet, organisations have so much to gain from treating older people as valued consumers, without stereotypes or trying to communicate with them in a way that’s disrespectful, patronising or dismissive. But is writing for older audiences different than writing for others?
According to the ABS, the population of Australia reached 25 million in 2018. Around 15% are people 65 years of age or older, which accounts for 3.4 million in total.
‘Older’ has become the adjective of choice to describe people ‘of a certain age’, in preference to ‘old’ or ‘elderly’.
But who exactly do we mean by ‘older people’? Older than who? At what age does one become ‘older’? Isn’t it tempting to say than an ‘older person’ is someone older than we are ourselves?
If you ask me or the millions of Australians over 50, rather than thinking of us as a homogeneous group, we want organisations to remember that our backgrounds, needs and ambitions are unique. But we continue to be excluded, underrepresented and misunderstood by services, businesses and governments who tend to talk at us, instead of talking to us. We all struggle with the amount of digital information coming at us from everywhere.
Our literacy skills vary and depend on the context. It’s easier to understand written material when it’s about a familiar topic.
Most of the writing organisations produce nowadays is about things that are complex, new or potentially stressful to our audience. It’s therefore important to use the style known as ‘plain language’, also called ‘inclusive’ or ‘universal’. This method ensures that communication about products and services addresses the needs of all people, regardless of age or ability.
If communicating with older Australians is part of your job and you are worried that writing in a clear, simple style won’t suit all readers, just remember: no one ever complains that a text is too easy to read.
Plain language will also help you organise your thoughts. You can only write your message clearly if you have understood it in the first place.
Before you start writing, consider these simple questions:
- Do you need to write at all? Is this the best method of conveying the information? Would a phone call, radio ad, face to face meeting or a short video be better?
- Who is going to read your piece?
- What does the intended reader already know?
- How will you disseminate your message?
- What do you want the text to achieve? Do you want to inform, explain, instruct, or do a mixture of these?
- Is the purpose of your message obvious and clearly stated?
- Is the information accurate, relevant and complete?
- Are any complex or technical terms explained?
- Is your piece written in active voice?
- Is there a call to action and contact details?
- Is the information well organised and easy to find?
- Is the average sentence length of 15–20 words?
- Is the text grammatical and well punctuated?
- Is capitalisation and spelling consistent?
- In what circumstances will the person be reading it?
- Can using images be helpful?
Once you’ve clarified the purpose, indented message and method of dissemination, you can get down to business:
- Write down all the points you are thinking of making.
- Cross out any unnecessary details.
- Make sure your remaining points are accurate.
- Cover who, what, how, why, where and how much,
- Link your points into groups of related ones. These will become paragraphs.
- Keep paragraphs and sections short – no more than 100 words per
- Make your writing human by writing in the first person (using I, me, we, you and us to refer to yourself, your organisation and your reader).
- Use a simple font of 12 to 14 point to make your text legible.
- Use single, clear images. Make sure pictures support the text, rather than being purely decorative.
All this effort means that people who you want to access your products or services will feel less excluded, frustrated and isolated. But it’ll also mean reaching more people, including those of CALD backgrounds, with low literacy levels and memory issues.
Polaron Language Services