The Secret to Sounding Smarter is Simpler Than You Think
What’s one of the easiest ways to tell a good communicator from a bad one? The good communicator uses small words.
The bad communicator, on the other hand, chooses big words—assuming it will make him or her sound smarter.
Even though this technique almost always backfires, people continue to do it because they’re unaware of how it comes off to others.
Take a look at this line I recently found on one man’s resume:
Effective in gaining the trust of individuals, achieving consensus, and maintaining long‐term, mutually beneficial relationships.
A bit of a mouthful, right? What if he simply said:
Build strong relationships based on trust, compromise, and mutual goals.
This makes him sound straightforward, competent, and confident in what he does. No need to sugarcoat his responsibilities and make them sound more impressive than they are. Plus, it saves him valuable resume space.
Look, I’m not immune to this mistake. While I consciously stay away from unnecessarily big words in my articles, I’m not always as careful with my professional communication. So for one week, I challenged myself to make everything I wrote for work (including emails, reports, and presentations) so clear and simple a sixth grader would get it.
Here’s how it went.
I’ve just started writing for a new magazine, and on Monday, I got an email from the editor asking me how the gig was going.
Here’s my first response:
“I’ve really enjoyed it thus far! Your editorial process is much more streamlined than some of the other publications to which I’ve contributed, and the platform is intuitive…”
Lots of big words—lots of blah, blah, blah. The guy just wanted to know how it was going. I started over:
“It’s been great! I love how quickly you send me feedback, and your site is really easy to use.”
When I don’t use big words, my emails get the point across faster. Bonus, I also sound like a real person, not a corporate robot.
My boss asked me to write a short report about our social media stats and how they’ve changed since we tweaked our strategy. This assignment put me in a slightly tricky spot. I couldn’t use big words, but I also couldn’t be too casual since this was going out to the entire company.
First, I wrote what I normally would:
“Prior to this month, we had approximately 3,000 followers. We posted on Twitter seven times a day, at specific, un-changing times. We did not usually reuse content. We included pictures in roughly one-third of posts. If one of our followers mentioned us in a Tweet, we would retweet it.”
Boring, right? Here’s what it looked like after I got rid of all the big words:
“Before this month, we had about 3,000 followers. Every day, we tweeted roughly seven times; the first tweet went out at 8 AM, the second at 10 AM, and so on. Once we’d tweeted something, we didn’t tweet about it again. Around one-third of our posts had pictures. We re-tweeted anyone who ‘mentioned’ us.”
Even when banning big words doesn’t shrink the length, it does make my writing more engaging. Also, note that you don’t have to sacrifice professionalism for simplicity.
Job application time. In my never-ending search for a summer internship, I’ve had to write a lot of cover letters, but this was the first one I’d written that couldn’t include any five-dollar words.
Here’s an excerpt from an old cover letter:
“I have experience with small publications; now I want to learn the challenges of combining the opinions and talents of a big, diverse group of employees while maintaining a cohesive product.”
Not bad, but a bit lacking in personality.
Here’s an excerpt from the cover letter I wrote during my challenge week:
“In the past two years, I’ve published over 500 articles. Being a journalist has given me a lot of insight into how other journalists work: what stories they like, how they want to be pitched, what turns them off, and so on. This makes me a great fit for the PR internship—I’ll be able to immediately jump in and get top writers covering your product.”
It’s easier to figure out what I’m saying without big words. If I were a hiring manager, I’d rather read the second cover letter than the first.
One of my freelance writing clients had gone totally AWOL—after a month of constant communication, he hadn’t emailed me for more than two weeks. I wanted to check in and see whether he still wanted to work together. For the first time, I really missed the comfort of “fluff” writing. It can be easier to say uncomfortable things when you’re hiding them in overly long, rambling sentences.
I hope you’re doing well! I wanted to touch base because it has been some time since we last discussed the project. What’s your interest level regarding its continuation?
I’d appreciate a prompt response, as I’m trying to coordinate my schedule for the upcoming month.
I shortened that to:
I hope you’re doing well! I haven’t heard back from you since March 24—are you still interested in working together? Please let me know ASAP, because I’m trying to figure out what I’ll be working on in April.
Trimming the fat forces me to be more direct. That’s actually a good thing; John emailed back right away. I’m not sure what his response to the first email would have been, but I know this one demanded attention.
Is writing with the no-big-words rule harder? Yes. Does it make me a better writer? I’d say so—and if you’ve enjoyed reading this article, which doesn’t include a single big word, then you probably agree.
I’ve decided to maintain this rule going forward, and I’d like you to try it, too! Here are the complete rules:
- If you want to use a word, ask yourself, “Would a sixth grader know what this means?” If the answer is no, the word is off limits.
- Jargon is okay, as long as the people you’re talking to know exactly what it all means. For example, if you’re in marketing, and you’re emailing your team, you can use “KPI” or “ROI” all you want.
- Buzzwords are not okay. If you find yourself typing “thought leadership” or “growth hacking” or “core competency,” it’s time to press the delete key. Ask yourself, what are you really trying to get across?
So what do you say: Will you take my challenge? If you do, find me on Twitter and let me know!