Economists are turning to Dr Seuss in a desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures attempt to find out how to talk to people in accessible ways.
Dr Seuss books are normally used to teach kids how to read, and now they’re teaching economists how to write. We’ve all gotta start somewhere right?
The Bank of England – which controls the UK’s money supply – did some research into the language it used in reports and found out that the way it writes means they were only accessible to one in five people in the UK.
To read its reports, the bank said, you need to have a reading level of ‘14’ on a scale called the ‘Flesch−Kincaid’ scale. Flesch-Kincaid, aside from sounding like some kind of horrible disease, is based on syllables and sentence length. It corresponds to the US education system – grade 14 means you need a university education to be able to comfortably read something.
“Those writing in the financial industry tend to use long words. They put those long words in long sentences. And those long sentences in long paragraphs.”
Nemat Shafik, who was the deputy governor (second in line) of the bank until a few months ago, told people at a books festival that all this meant economists were struggling to engage with actual people – by studying kids books they can learn how to tell stories and how to get information across in an easy-going, engaging way.
This is what one blog from someone who works at the Bank of England said: “Those writing in the financial industry tend to use long words. They put those long words in long sentences. And those long sentences in long paragraphs. The longest sentence we found in our sample of Bank of England documents contained 77 words.” That’s not simple, and it’s definitely not engaging.
It’s not just the Bank of England that thinks we have a problem. Last week the chief economist of the World Bank – basically a bank for banks – a guy called Paul Romer, stood down from one of his roles as head of the World Bank’s research team after he put loads of pressure on the team to cut down the length of their sentences and make their research clearer. Apparently he put a limit on the amount of times researchers can use the word ‘and’ in their reports, and (sorry Paul) they weren’t too happy about it.
The thing is, we’ve been saying this all along. Take the Bank of England’s ‘one in five’ stat – when we asked people whether they thought economics was spoken about in a way that is accessible only 12% said yes.
The fact that the banks are trying to make their work more easily accessible is a good start, but beyond rhyming like kids books and cutting the word ‘and’, there are loads more things we think banks, governments and the media should be doing to the way they talk about economics – this is only the beginning.