A client gave me a 38-page, 16,000 word document written by computer engineers about cyber security, and how to protect you organization from being hacked.

It was nearly incomprehensible, even for me, and I know quite a bit about cyber security.

This was the assignment: “Can you revise this to be read and understood at a fifth grade reading level? And we need it by Tuesday.”

Thankfully, the Flesch-Kincaid readability assessment was a useful tool.

But it took me 20 hours over a couple of days, to do what Henry Thoreau said about writing: “simplify.”

I rewrote the entire document, removing more than 4,000 words in the process.

Why a fifth grade reading level?

Because the reading comprehension of most Americans is somewhere between a fifth and sixth grade reading level, and maybe as high as eighth.

Something to think about when we sit down to help you “tell your story.”


“John Harrigan’s thick fingers are punishing the keys of a battered Smith Corona at 6:30 on a Tuesday morning. It’s press day, a weekly ritual for John, publisher and editor of The Coos County Democrat weekly newspaper in Lancaster, New Hampshire.  For the next 17 hours or so he’ll be in a hurry ­­­­– writing stories, editing copy, laying out pages, meeting deadlines. At 7 p.m. John changes clothes and roles – from editor to pressman – to print his own newspaper. Thirty five miles north, in Colebrook, his father, Fred Harrigan, follows a similar routine in his office at The News and Sentinel weekly newspaper. Within a few hours that evening more than 10,000 Harrigan newspapers will be printed, bundled, and delivered to the post office. Only then will John and Fred be able to relax over a sandwich, a late night bottle of beer, and maybe a quick game of darts.”  By Tom Hanley, “They Share the Press, Not the News” Yankee Magazine, February, 1983

News Releases
Fundraising Case Statements
Annual Reports

White Papers

Video Scripts
Web Copy


More than 30 years have elapsed since I wrote that magazine article on a typewriter. Since then, as a public relations practitioner, I have written speeches for CEOs leading hospital mergers, testimony for state public hearings, annual reports, fundraising case statements, white papers, news releases, feature stories, and in the new social media age, just to show I am still relevant, blogs.

 Why did I go back three decades to share my first writing sample?

 Because my editor at Yankee Magazine taught me a valuable lesson as he “redlined” my first paragraph, which started this way: “Though many fathers dream of having their sons follow them in the family business, Fred Harrigan got more than he bargained for. His son, John, quit as editor of Fred’s newspaper to buy the Democrat, the competing newspaper and the two have been friendly rivals for the past four years…And father and son love to “scoop” each other on news stories.”

 The editor wanted to know: “Who are Fred and John? How do you immediately engage the reader in their lives? What is their day like?" After seven years as a reporter and freelance writer, I was chagrined, but I knew the editor was right. So, I wrote the new “top” to the story, and my original lede became the third paragraph.

What’s the point? This was a writing and “storytelling” lesson I have never forgotten.

When I gain the privilege of meeting you to learn about your organization, I want to know, “what’s your story?”

I am keenly interested to know about your business from the inside and from the outside. “What is your day like?”How does you organization engage with the public? How are you different than other similar organizations? What sets you apart? What is a great story you want to tell that illustrates what you are all about?"

After a fundraising event at which the CEO gave a speech I had written, and we played a video I had scripted, the president of a major foundation, one of our most important donors, said to my boss: “You guys do a great job of putting a face on your mission and how you serve the community.”