The case for (and against) simple words

Posted on Oct 19, 2015

We’ve been campaigning (for decades, actually) for simple words. Forceful, direct, authentic messaging is more effective than bizspeak or thesaurus-inspired gibberish.simple words

If you check out our Cover Letters From Hell, you’ll read our grumblings about those who choose obtain over get and embark over go. A simple, clear noun or verb beats the hell out of a rococo adjective from the get-go. Strunk and White, friends. Strunk and White.

Your natural voice is your authentic voice. I was listening to Alec Baldwin’s podcast the other day, where he interviewed Ira Glass. Ira told the story about how he had to “un-train” himself from using announcer-speak (where you emphasize all the important words and sound phony). It took Ira more than seven years on the radio before he could let that go, and speak naturally and credibly.

As writing coaches everywhere remind us, when you write to a 16-year old’s reading level, you still sail over the head (or beyond the attention span) of 97% of your audience. This is of course lamentable, but hey. Edit yourself to select simple words, one-syllable words, easily understood plain truths.

But (as PeeWee used to say, everyone has a big But) there is a case to be made for the occasional unusual word or phrase. The telling, precise, euphonious word. (E.g., euphonious, lamentable, rococo?) If your audience has three-digit IQs, go ahead and choose that stop-to-think polysyllabic gem. You’ll befuddle the bottom quintile, of course, but if they can’t keep up with the tour group they may not be persuadable anyway.

What prompted these musings was our use of asymptote the other day in an email for a client. The audience was bright people, we were careful to define it as we used it, and didn’t we all take high school algebra? Were we reckless?

11 Comments

  1. Rick Rusch
    September 27, 2011

    I am a proponent of simple words. To me the use of simple language conveys competence.

    I also think the use of vocabulary expanding words is important for learning, growth and communication effectiveness.

    Reply
  2. Mark Prus
    September 27, 2011

    An unusual word used wisely can be a “wake up call” to the audience. However, it must be relevant otherwise it will cause “psychoplane” brain activity (e.g., “What the heck was that word? Does this guy think I know what that means? Maybe I should know it? Aw heck with this presenter and his SAT words….”). When developing brand names, we often use words in unusual, but highly relevant ways. That way we attract interest and cause the brain to link the brand name with positive emotions…at least that is the theory!

    Reply
  3. Jonnie Enloe
    September 27, 2011

    Different people have different ideas on how to best convey a message. The thing missing from our education today that was common a hundred years ago is Rhetoric. A hundred years ago language was taught but a totally separate and distinct course of Rhetoric was taught as a means of how to use the language. Many words in our language as well as phrases can be used to mean different things. Because we are not taught Rhetoric we search our brains for different words for special meaning. Many times we feel we must use a “bigger” word than actually needed because of our lack of knowledge of Rhetoric, or how to form sentences from simpler words to attain the same meaning. I now wish I had paid attention in Language arts. It is one of my biggest failures. Once in the business world, I was most embarrassed in not being able to effectively communicate by the written word. I had to teach myself Rhetoric and sentence structure after I was 25. It was a vast new world that I discovered. I suppose nowadays students are more reluctant that ever to study language arts, let alone Rhetoric which almost no one practices these days. It is a sad state of affairs as we are judged on our communication skills, especially on the internet due to the inability to speak together. We only demonstrate our ignorance by using more complicated words than are necessary or even prudent. We must first judge who our audience is, and then apply the proper word set and sentence structure to meet that audiences needs. It reflects poorly on us if we speak to a group of adults in an adult learning program at a local high school with words and phrases more appropriate to a group of medical graduate students. It makes us look arrogant. Always consider the people you are speaking to and their level of learning. If you are speaking to that group of medical graduate students, if you speak in simple terms they will appreciate it and remember what you said.

    I differ to Richard Feynman of Caltech and winner of the nobel prize. He said that the study of physics would always create more questions than answers and that in the end the long time students of physics found out that they did not know anymore for certain than they did when they started. They just had more questions. So why complicate the issue with complicated terms. Hence Feynman’s oversimpfied diagrams so everyone can understand.

    Reply
  4. Amy Kraushaar
    September 27, 2011

    I’m a strategic planner who works with the c-suite and a journalism major.
    Big words are good.
    For the appropriate audience.
    And right strategy.
    Wish more people would pick up a dictionary.
    You never know what you might learn.
    No, you weren’t reckless.
    Great writing in this blog, by the way.

    Reply
  5. Sumit Roy
    September 27, 2011

    If you make them stop long enough to have to consult a dictionary – you’ve lost them.

    If you make them stop long enough to notice the penny drop – go ahead use the word.

    Reply
  6. Ric Bender
    September 28, 2011

    I believe for the most part a simple word can be more relevant and thus effective possibly even more powerful. I would like to add, not only a simple word but to be economic with our words.

    Reply
  7. Alan Kent
    September 28, 2011

    EGO plurimus pectus pectoris congruo

    Reply
  8. Bob
    September 30, 2011

    De gustibus…

    Reply
  9. Nixon
    October 21, 2015

    Note to self: never use the word lugubrious in an ad for aftermarket pickup truck accessories.

    Reply
    • bob
      October 30, 2015

      That’s perspicacious, y’all.

      Reply
  10. Ted
    October 22, 2015

    I am negatively influenced by poor grammar and misspellings but, I enjoy reading at almost any level.
    I enjoy dialog even more for a variety of reasons.
    I abhor ignorance at any level.
    If I don’t understand a word, I ask for an explanation – because I still enjoy learning.
    But, enough about me…

    Digital natives understand that a simple tap on a word, regardless of complexity, leads to a dictionary which offers an explanation and possibly even clarity. Sadly, for many…. laziness and ignorance get in the way.

    Reply

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