Read it and weep

Everytime I visit the beautiful harbour city of Hobart I drop into Fullers Bookshop for a browse. I feel at home there, partly because we share a surname. For years I’ve held delusions of grandeur that I might head south and buy it, along with some arctic-rated thermal underwear and a hand spun and knitted beanie.  

I also love it because it is one of the best independent book sellers in Australia. It punches above its meagre weight in its depth and breadth of titles, it has a talented and well-read staff and the coffee is sustaining on a freezing Tassie day, as the grey rain slates the windows. 

Since it was founded 102 years ago by bookseller Bill Fuller, it has also played a quite unique community leadership role. It has published local history books enabling Tasmanians to tell their stories, it supports Tasmanian authors with readings and book signings and it gets involved in local cultural activities.

Its most recent campaign that caught my eye was Connect 42, a bid to improve literacy in Tasmania. 

Now, for a moment, just consider this long lunch conversation starter:

One in two working age Tasmanians are functionally illiterate.

That’s 50 per cent of all men and women between the ages of 16 and 65. 

Half the patrons on the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. Half of the locals who visit MONA. And half the crowd in the New Sydney Hotel on a Saturday night (a minimum, I’d say), who don’t possess the reading and writing skills required to manage daily living and employment tasks.

Staggering isn’t it. 


Levelling-up literacy

Connect 42 (part of the Tasmanian 100 per cent Literacy Alliance) is doing something about it. It aims to double literacy by 2030 so that Tassie kids can catch up with the progress other states are making (for example, South Australian Year 1 literacy scores have improved from a 43 per cent achievement rate in 2018 to 63 per cent in 2021).

But lest we all gravely tug at our chins and take cheap shots at the Taswegians, there is another equally disarming fact. 

According to the OECD, 40 to 50 per cent of adults in Australia have literacy levels below the international standard required for participation in work, education and society. If there is any good news, the OECD numbers show our literacy rates are similar to New Zealand and actually better than in the United Kingdom and US.

In a survey of adult skills conducted by the OECD in Australia, Australian adults scored fifth out of participating countries for literacy — after Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden. The United Kingdom and the US scored at 15th and 17th respectively. 

So this inability to grapple with basic words and numbers is not just a Tasmanian or Australian thing. It’s global…and I imagine it only got a lot worse over the last two years of education interruptus.

I don’t know why I’m surprised. Back when I worked in newspapers, crusty sub editors told us to take out words with more than six letters. The view was that the general population reading level was about that of a second year high school student. 

Last week I decided to go back and check the Government Style Manual (the once mandatory Bible that sat on every editor’s desk) to see if the level of language used in general communication has changed. 

Apparently not.  

According to the Manual, in Australia about 44 per cent of adults read at literacy level 1 to 2 (a primary school equivalent level where they understand short sentences). Only 15 per cent read at level 4 to 5 (the highest level).

This illiteracy pandemic can’t be easily explained away by Australia’s rise in migration. 

According to the 2016 census, 73 per cent of Australians speak English as the only language at home which leaves about 27 per cent who are multilingual. But of the 25.3 million people in Australia, only about one million do not speak English at all.

According to Adult Learning Australia, 68 per cent of callers to their Reading Writing Hotline in 2020 were not from Aleppo or Damascus or Beirut. Most were from English speaking backgrounds and went through school in Australia. 

Adult Learning Australia says: “another mistaken belief is that it is young people who don’t have the literacy skills for work and study.”

The ABS’ Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies revealed that it is older Australians, aged 60+, with the lowest literacy rates.

And 60 per cent of callers to the Reading Writing Hotline are men, mostly in the 44 to 65 age group. The boys who were teasing the girls in the back row during the 60s, 70s and 80s are the long term victims of their own inattention.


The communications challenge

I assume most of you who are reading this essay are interested in the business of communication — how to convey a message to an audience to engage them, create behaviour change, sell a product or a service.  

We as a group of creative people go to extraordinary lengths to develop communication campaigns. 

We undertake research to determine the behaviours of our target audiences — what they read, drink, eat, what entertains them, where they travel, whether they have children and/or dogs and/or cats, whether they own their own homes or are renting, what they drive or don’t drive. 

We never check if they can read.  

Our writers craft conceptual messages, leading to a few, pared back inspiring emotional one liners that will elicit a response. Pure poetry.

Then our artists craft visuals to add a heightened level of connection; the videographers take these cues and make movies; animators make the unreal, real.

We then test the idea with a panel of representative consumers who give it their thumbs up or down.

Then it hits the streets and we stand back and watch and measure whether our campaign has stopped people crashing into themselves on the roads, or checking Facebook while driving. 

We might be trying to encourage them to give their hard-earned cash to a charity. Choose a new car. Buy some tight jeans from The Iconic. 

And if the campaign doesn’t work, we blame the concept, the channel or the media spend.

In fact, what we now know is that half of our target audiences may not have the capacity to read or understand what we are talking about. 

So what do we do as communicators? Keep firing the shotgun into the fog hoping to hit something? Or start thinking about our messaging and channels in a more sophisticated way?


Language localisation  

Language localisation is a field of study that addresses this issue.

“The main goal of localisation is to give your product, offering, service, or even just simply your content, the look and feel of one created specifically for your new target market, irrespective of their native language, local culture, or religion.”

Localisation is a product of the increasing globalisation of society…but it is not the same thing.

Globalisation is the interconnection of the world through trade, communications, and travel. Localisation is the strategy of adapting products and services for specific locales and cultures. 

Wikipedia says: The localisation process is most generally related to the cultural adaptation and translation of software, video games, websites, and technical communication, as well as audio/voiceover, video, or other multimedia content, and less frequently to any written translation (which may also involve cultural adaptation processes). 

So, fellow brand communication trendsetters, how do we fine tune our campaigns so they hit the mark amongst people with different cultural and literacy skills?

Language localisation specialist Lee Densmer says that while we can make sentences simpler, really it is pictures that are worth a thousand words.

“The advantages of using visual storytelling over text go well beyond making it comprehensible for low literacy populations: images are easier for anyone to comprehend quickly, and the information is absorbed faster and resonates longer,” she says.

“Show your audience the story and they’ll become much more invested in it as they start to see life through the eyes of the characters and, most importantly, work things out for themselves. Images trigger the emotional brain.”

The brand brains at Branding Strategy Insider reinforce this message. 

“The emotional brain processes sensory information in one fifth of the time our cognitive brain takes to assimilate the same input,” they say.

“In a world where the trend is for consumers, regardless of their literacy level, to spend less time engaging with your marketing, having someone process your message in two seconds instead of ten makes a massive difference. 

90% of the information transmitted to your brain is visual, and it processes images 60,000 times faster than text.

“Literacy considerations aside, visuals are faster to process, easier to remember and cheaper to localise.”

As a professional writer I can feel fearful…or freed up by this information. I choose the latter. 

We know in our own agency that the requirements for video and animation is growing exponentially as clients seek greater connection with every age group and demographic. 

One of the best examples is a recent pro-bono campaign that we developed for an indigenous fresh food supply business in Alice Springs. 

Kere to Country is a good strategic case study of how storytelling graphics were used to communicate with isolated communities in the Northern Territory. 

The people in these communities might speak three or four different languages — English being the least widespread — so it was essential to adopt the lessons of localisation to achieve cut-through.  

Through our Fellowship program we have also developed a diversity language guide that makes communication more targeted and inclusive.

The take home message is that the illiteracy suffered by around half of adult workers in Australia (and the world), is a far more serious pandemic than the one we have just learnt to manage with vaccines and masks.

This is now a serious equity issue, a threat to a harmonious, amicable and balanced society. Radical political and terrorist organisations feed on those who haven’t learnt to read, absorb information objectively and make considered judgements. Family violence often stems from male frustration and feelings of inadequacy.

It’s time to campaign not just for more funding and better teachers, but a new approach to educating those who consistently slip through the cracks of our system — boys and young men, Australia’s First Nations people and those from marginalised families. 

As communicators we have to do more than talk. We have to own this challenge.


If you would like to donate to Connect 42, you can visit their website.


Ideas, insights and inspiration direct to your inbox.