How old are your readers, really?

The other day, I was talking to a very experienced copywriter, who told me something I didn’t know…

I love it when this happens. And I’m writing this because I wanted to pass that thing on to you, too.

Possibly, you know it already. But I thought it was a thing that’s good to be reminded of, and I think you’ll agree.

We were talking about language (bet you weren’t expecting that).

They work in-house at a financial services brand. A mark-making* client no less.

And I was excited, because they’ve been doing some brilliant work on compulsory language. The language that the FCA – rightly – won’t let us sell financial products without.

That writer had been working (with the various teams you have to work with) to agree versions of the language that actually sounds like stuff a person might say out loud.

As you can imagine if you’re anywhere near this sort of work in your day-to-day, it’s been a ball-ache. (My words, not theirs. They’re very polite.)

There’s a lot of waiting around, negotiating, to-ing and fro-ing. And that’s *after* you’ve spent all the time and effort choosing the right words in the first place.

From a brand point of view, I was thrilled. I marvelled at the legwork and revelled in the prospect of being able to implement the fruits of their labour. To make my work look better and make the communications work better for the client and their customers.

And then this copywriter said something that made all of that glee sound distinctly superficial (which, on one level, it absolutely is).

They pointed out to me that, in financial services, and probably other sectors too, a good chunk of the copy is generated by people who roughly fit the description of white, middle-class graduate.

It’s then read, reviewed, put through the regulatory mill, and (finally) signed off by other people who are mostly white, middle-class graduates.

And as a result, said copy will almost certainly be understandable, relatable and persuasive for white, middle-class graduates. Good job.

But a consumer financial services company has got a few more people to worry about than that.

White, middle-class graduates are not the only people who need mortgages or savings accounts.

I was with them so far. Nodding away. I wasn’t ready for the next bit.

All the effort just to get that graduate-generated copy past the other graduates paled completely when they told me this:

The average reading age in the UK is nine years old. Nine.

That shocked me, and it made me think.

*Pause for dramatic effect*

I would love to have left this post here, exhorting you to keep that number in mind next time you read, write or approve copy that might get read by the average Brit.


Being the curious copywriter that I am, I went digging on the internet to try and find a source for that remarkable number.

Reader, I’m still hunting.

The National Literacy Trust helped me out by breaking down the first three lowest literacy levels (out of five), as defined by the UK Government’s 2011 Skills for Life Survey:

“Entry Level 1 is equivalent to literacy levels at age 5-7. Adults below Entry Level 1 may not be able to write short messages to family or read a road sign.

Entry Level 2 is equivalent to literacy levels at age 7-9. Adults with below Entry Level 2 may not be able to describe a child’s symptoms to a doctor or read a label on a medicine bottle.

Entry Level 3 is equivalent to literacy levels at age 9-11. Adults with skills below Entry Level 3 may not be able to understand labels on pre-packaged food or understand household bills.”

That survey says that 14.9% of adults, or 1 in 7, have literacy levels at or below Entry Level 3.

It’s not as simple or tidy as “think of your average reader as a nine-year-old”.

What it is, is a welcome reminder that not everyone we communicate with is like us.

We get employed, nail briefs, and win awards because we think like we do.

But it’s so, so important to think like other people, too.

Written by Chloe Marshall

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mark-making* is an award-winning creative agency specialising in branding, campaigns and communications