October 19, 2015

The case for (and against) simple words

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?