Sophisticated writing with simple words (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Photo: barrowboy via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

One key to writing success is to use words that connect with your audience. The secret is not to rein in your vocabulary, but to keep the bullshit density under control.

Dear Dr. Wobs:

Is there a formula for figuring out exactly how much the vocabulary level in business writing needs to be “dumbed-down” depending on the situation?

Jack Tupp

Jack, thank you for a clear, brief, and interesting question.

Let’s start with your premise that vocabulary needs to be “dumbed-down.” I’d never put it in those terms. I always presume that my audience is intelligent, but ignorant. They’re intelligent because they’re capable of reasoning. They’re ignorant because they don’t yet know what I’m about to tell them, and as a result I can’t skip steps in that reasoning.

[tweetthis]Treat your audience as intelligent but ignorant. They can reason, but lack the knowledge you’ll share.[/tweetthis]

This affects the kinds of vocabulary you use. I’d classify all the words we use in writing into these groups.

  • Common words that you know they’ll understand (like “premise” and “vocabulary”)
  • Terms of art in your world, also known as jargon (for example, “skewness” or “logistic regression” if you’re a statistician)
  • 50-cent words intended to impress people (“antediluvian” or “sesquipedalian”)
  • Interesting, uncommon words that pique attention (for example, I recently used “venerable” and “purveyor”)

The key is not which words you use, but the proportions. Nine out of ten words you write should be common words — it’s the arrangement, not the words, that piques interest and deliver meaning. Sprinkle with interesting words if you want, and keep the terms of art to a minimum (use the ones that your audience knows, and define the ones that they don’t). As for the 50-cent words, dump ’em. You’re not here to show off.

Let’s contrast two approaches. Here’s a passage from Google’s page “Ten things we know to be true

Fast is better than slow.

We know your time is valuable, so when you’re seeking an answer on the web you want it right away–and we aim to please. We may be the only people in the world who can say our goal is to have people leave our website as quickly as possible. By shaving excess bits and bytes from our pages and increasing the efficiency of our serving environment, we’ve broken our own speed records many times over, so that the average response time on a search result is a fraction of a second. We keep speed in mind with each new product we release, whether it’s a mobile application or Google Chrome, a browser designed to be fast enough for the modern web. And we continue to work on making it all go even faster.

As far as jargon goes, the only uncommon words here are “bytes” and “mobile application” — hardly obscure terminology. It’s clear without being impenetrable.

Compare that this excerpt from an Gartner blog post by Andrew Frank:

Blockchain for Marketers

Who would have thought the world could go nuts about a global distributed ledger protocol called blockchain?

Sure, by eliminating the evils of sovereign fiat currency and exploitative transaction fees, we might create a secure and efficient unified global economy that levels the playing field and greases the wheels of commerce for everyone, with an ideal balance of cryptographic anonymity and law-enforcement-friendly public tracking of each transaction. But the path along the way is littered with arcana and technocratic infighting. In the meantime, marketers ask, how is this relevant?

Obviously this post needs to mention blockchain. But we’ve also got “global distributed ledger protocol,” “sovereign fiat currency,” “exploitative transaction fees,” “cryptographic anonymity,” “arcana,” and “technocratic infighting.” In itself, each of these is defensible. It’s the density that’s the problem — along with the long sentences and the cliches (greased wheels on level playing fields, anyone?). You have to work really hard to get the meaning out of this. Smart people aim to dispel ignorance with their knowledge, not to show off.

Finally, let me take on the very end of your little question — that is, how does this depend on the situation? It certainly depends on the audience — a memo for restaurant workers at a McDonald’s is not going to use the same vocabulary as one for executives or marketers at the same company. But if the audience is the same, I don’t vary vocabulary depending on context. If I’m emailing, writing a report, or posting an Intranet page, they all get clear and powerful prose that’s rich in meaning and sparing with the jargon. That makes life easier for me, and keeps their impressions of me consistent.

As a thank-you for his question, I sent Jack a prerelease copy of Writing Without BullshitAsk Dr. Wobs your question, and if I pick it, I’ll send you a copy, too.

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  1. The Google post actually says relatively little….basically that their products are fast. The blockchain quote packs in at least 3 or 4 different points…1) that there are problems w. traditional currency, 2) that blockchains have lower fee structures 3) there is a balance to be struck between law enforcement and anonymity.

    I agree it isn’t great writing– I think the flaw is that anyone who knows what blockchains issues are finds this a cursory ticking off of boxes, and anyone who doesn’t is already lost.

    I find this the most challenging part about business writing– the trade off between boring the people who already get it, or confusing the people who don’t. i tend to write for everyone, but I worry it makes me sound pedantic. For example, I recently wrote a piece about whether journalists make good social media “influencers” for marketers. I spent two or three paragraphs defining what I think an influencer is today, and why that is different than a celebrity or a journalist. But anyone who cares about this specific question probably already knows this.

  2. Long time reader, first time poster.

    I will be using the “the audience is intelligent, but ignorant” angle in *every* future conversation with anyone who suggests writing clearly is dumbing things down.

    Thank you.