Whether you’re filling out job applications or putting together a huge presentation for work, it’s a no-brainer that you want to impress others with your intelligence. While you can achieve this through a variety of means, many professionals simply turn to using big words. Or, I should say, commence utilizing superior verbiage.

But guess what? Science says that using all those long SAT words is actually having a negative effect—and it could be swaying the people you most want to impress in the opposite direction.

In a psychology study, researcher Daniel M. Oppenheimer found that when he replaced shorter words in college essays with longer ones, readers found the authors of those essays to be less intelligent and less confident. In other words, when you try to make your language complex, you run the risk of sounding like you’re overcompensating.

Let’s be real here: We’re all guilty of sneaking over to Thesaurus.com in the hopes of finding more colorful language to describe ourselves in a cover letter, or to make an investor report seem less bland, or just to impress an executive in an email about quarterly goals. But there’s a certain point where it stops being impressive and starts giving off the vibe that you’re trying too hard. For example, saying that a talkative co-worker is “loquacious” doesn’t sound particularly natural, does it?

So, if this “What are you hiding with your big words?” effect isn’t the goal here, what should you be aiming for? Oppenheimer suggests going for clarity. If your resume, cover letter, email, or other communication sounds straightforward and to-the-point, why ruin that with complex word choice? For example, we recommend you use these simple action verbs for your resume—rather than pad it with language that will confuse the hiring manager.

On the flip side, sometimes bigger, more specific words are necessary to get your point across, and that’s fine, too. The point is, if you want to impress others, don’t rely on your language to do that; let your ideas and your work speak for themselves.


Photo of woman writing courtesy of Shutterstock.