Readers: Am I right? Wrong? Do bosses want big words? Please share your experience!
“Sure, using regular everyday language is fine with my team, but with the partners, I have to use my ‘ten dollar words.’ You have to impress them.”
As a communications coach I hear statements like this all the time. “The ‘higher ups’ are smart; they expect complexity.” One consultant even claimed recently, “Some clients just want to read all that fluff. They think it justifies why they are paying us.”
We can’t help it – school made us that way!
I’m pretty skeptical about those generalizations, but I get it. I studied for the AP test. No teacher ever asked me for the “most concise” paper possible. In school, we’re basically paid by the word, preferably multisyllabic ones. By the time we graduate and go to work, we’re ready to unleash our well-stocked word-horde and augment it with our new job jargon.
But after years of working with professionals in every industry, I know that the VPs and partners of the world do not value big words or long sentences. Imagine a senior partner at a major firm reading a report and complaining, “This document is so ^*$$%%!!…readable. It’s clear, I get to the point right away, and it’s easy to respond to. I am definitely going to fire whoever wrote it.”
That’s about as likely as the CEO promoting someone for writing the longest sentences in the company.
People at every level want one thing as readers: clarity
From the mailroom to the boardroom, we all want to understand a message clearly and quickly. Just because you’re a senior leader doesn’t mean that you develop a taste for complexity in communication, or that you want the challenge of deciphering a jargon-filled proposal. In fact, at these higher levels, you probably have a more critical need for clear, direct language.
Research into “big word disease”
In 2005, Princeton Psych professor Daniel Oppenheimer conducted a fascinatingstudy to see what readers really thought about documents filled with long words. Oppenheimer’s study, humorously entitled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” found that readers rated the authors of the “needlessly complex” documents as less intelligent than those of documents with simpler writing. By the way, that work won an Ignoble Prize that year, which recognizes research ”that makes people laugh and then think.”
Oppenheimer tells us that the people most likely to “pad” writing with big words are college students and those new to the work force. He found that nearly 2/3 of the Stanford University students he studied admitted to using a thesaurus to find more complex words so that they could impress the professor with their intelligence.
As a business writing instructor at Boston University and in the nation’s largest corporations, I know he’s right. It’s the people who are the least secure as writers that make their writing unnecessarily complex. In fact, several people in my corporate writing workshops have confessed that they added big words to their documents to raise their grade level of the Flesch Kincaid score in Microsoft Word. They all wanted to look more “educated” with their bosses.
But none of this word bloat is necessary. Smart people, busy people, people with designer underwear, they all just want to get your point without working too hard to do it. Here’s a great tip for writing to them – and to everyone else: Just think of how you would explain something in spoken words to your reader, and try to stick as close to those natural words as possible. And try to avoid jargon too. Sure, sometimes you have to use technical terms and complex sentences, but mostly you don’t. If you avoid needless complexity, you’ll be a better writer, and the senior people at your company will be grateful.
And for inspiration, think of the great John F, Kennedyspeech in which he said “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
Notice how he doesn’t say, as Chip Heath and Dan Heath point out in their great book Made to Stick, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.” If he did say it that way, it’s unlikely there would have been "one small step for man... "
So step away from the thesaurus and know that your boss, and your boss’s boss, don’t need your big words, they just need the right words, which are usually simple and direct. So the next time you need to go all “Recontextualizing” and “operationalizing the forward initiative to gain agreeance,” just stop! Think of how you would say the same thing in “human.” And if you need a thesaurus, try a reverse thesaurus that finds you a smaller word version of your long word.
I think you’ll find it’s a paradigm shift, whatever the heck that is.