Simple Writing Pays Off (Literally)

Article by Bill Birchard: “When SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt championed “plain English” writing in the 1990s, he argued that simpler financial disclosures would help investors make more informed decisions. Since then, we’ve also learned that it can help companies make more money. 

Researchers have confirmed that if you write simply and directly in disclosures like 10-Ks you can attract more investors, cut the cost of debt and equity, and even save money and time on audits.  

landmark experiment by Kristina Rennekamp, an accounting professor at Cornell, documented some of the consequences of poor corporate writing. Working with readers of corporate press releases, she showed that companies stand to lose readers owing to lousy “processing fluency” of their documents. “Processing fluency” is a measure of readability used by psychologists and neuroscientists. 

Rennekamp asked people in an experiment to evaluate two versions of financial press releases. One was the actual release, from a soft drink company. The other was an edit using simple language advocated by the SEC’s Plain English Handbook. The handbook, essentially a guide to better fluency, contains principles that now serve as a standard by which researchers measure readability. 

Published under Levitt, the handbook clarified the requirements of Rule 421, which, starting in 1998, required all prospectuses (and in 2008 all mutual fund summary prospectuses) to adhere to the handbook’s principles. Among them: Use short sentences. Stick to active voice. Seek concrete words. Shun boilerplate. Minimize jargon. And avoid multiple negatives. 

Rennekamp’s experiment, using the so-called Fog Index, a measure of readability based on handbook standards, provided evidence that companies would do better at hooking readers if they simply made their writing easier to read. “Processing fluency from a more readable disclosure,” she wrote in 2012 after measuring the greater trust readers put in well-written releases, “acts as a heuristic cue and increases investors’ beliefs that they can rely on the information in the disclosure…(More)”.