But we also talked about doing something so simple that anybody can do it: Keep your average sentence length around 15 words per sentence. Why? Because it will make your writing much easier to understand.
Here’s an example. The following three sentences appeared in one of my client’s executive summaries:
Our wealth of data management experience gives us a unique vantage point in the market and allows us to build an understanding of both the challenges and the opportunities you and your various operating units face as you embark on reviewing data processing procedures and capabilities. Our aim is to leverage our enterprise, experience and expertise to focus upon the key operational requirements and to go far beyond them to deliver.
We are confident that we will be able to provide you with innovative services and solutions that will provide the opportunity to reduce costs and enhance operational performance across all areas of your business.
There are a number of things wrong with those sentences. The focus is primarily on the vendor—“our wealth of…experience,” our “unique vantage point,” “our aim,” and so on. They contain some broad generalities—going “far beyond” the requirements, providing “innovative services and solutions,” and other bits of fluff. And they sound generic. Although they nod toward the customer’s issues and requirements, this exact same verbiage could be used in a proposal for the Safeway grocery chain, the Little Sisters of the Poor charity, or General Electric’s Aircraft Engine Business Group.
But the first thing you notice is that the sentences are too long. There’s nothing wrong with them grammatically. They don’t contain any spelling or punctuation errors. But they seem to drag themselves across the page like wounded snakes.
In total, the three sentences add up to 105 words. That’s an average of 35 words per sentence. For most adults, an average sentence length of 15 words, give or take a few, will be much easier to read and understand.
If we rewrote these sentences, and made them a bit more specific to the client (a retail chain called The Book Barn), they would sound better:
We have twenty years’ experience designing data systems for retail outlets like the Book Barn. Retail chains often face unique challenges, such as tracking inventory, consolidating store information, and reconciling accounts. Our expertise in the retail sector enables us to design and implement data systems that successfully address these challenges.
By combining our insight into retail operations with our data processing expertise, we will deliver a system that meets your technical requirements and delivers bottom-line performance. You can expect reduced costs, improved operational performance, and a more integrated business environment.
That version has fewer words overall (90 compared to the 105 in the original). And the average sentence length is shorter than the original, too–an average of 18 words compared to 35 in the original.
Wouldn’t you agree it’s easier to read? And isn’t it a lot more persuasive?