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When Stress Is High, Make Messages Easy to Read

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

"Simplicity Changes Behaviors"

In this massive wave of uncertainty, businesses need to recognize something important. Reading is challenging for a significant majority of the population, even in the best of times. Under stress, a person's reading comprehension usually drops a few grade levels.

The Joint Commission on Health's states, "Everyone, no matter how educated, is at risk for misunderstanding health information, especially when [they're] emotionally charged or the information is complex." (

We're All Relying On Quality Communication

On March 26, 2020, the CDC issued this statement to guide New York delivery drivers as they come and go carrying much-needed supplies into the hotspot for coronavirus / COVID-19. That's important information! What was the reading level for this key information? Grade 16.

We need people from all walks of life to quickly interpret information and take action. By writing at this level of difficulty, few people will put in the effort to translate the verbiage into action steps. If you're responsible for communicating with the public, take steps to make sure your message is easy to read.

Use Readability Tools To Help Save More Lives

If only 2% of adults can easily read your printed material, how will your target audience take the needed actions buried within your text? They won't. In this before-and-after comparison, notice how much easier it becomes to understand and follow the directives.

7 Ways You Can Improve Readability

Now more than ever, life-saving information must be clear. Start with these seven steps.

  • State needed actions directly and simply.

  • Create information architecture with ultra-simple headers and clarifying graphics.

  • Design for your audience: stress reduces comprehension, and good readers are busy.

  • Remove all extraneous information.

  • Use easy words. (See )

  • Measure the readability level of your messaging. (Example here)

  • Aim for 8th grade or lower for any general audience.

Clarity improves safety for everyone! With these steps, you can lower barriers and flatten the curve.


Email me if you need help. I'm fast and efficient. This CDC information redesign took me less than 2 hours. (They did not respond to my offer to help – yet!) Contact


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1 Comment

Great work, and very important! It's hard for people to get out of their own heads and remember how their materials will be understood by their intended audience, and this is a very good reminder of that.

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