Writing to impress rarely makes a good impression

I remember the sales rep quite well, although it’s been a quarter-century since we walked down LaSalle Street together. Eager to make a good impression with a potential advertiser, he talked about his interest in Chicago’s architecture. He gestured at the structure across the street and said, “I think that building has a particularly beautiful ‘fah-sayd’.”

I knew what he meant; the façade was exquisite. Unfortunately for the friendly rep, the word is pronounced “fah-sahd,” with a short a, rather than a long one. Had he said, “The front of this building is particularly beautiful” to our group of non-architects, he would have accomplished his goal. But by choosing another word in an effort to impress his lunch companions, who knew better, his efforts actually managed to backfire, creating smirks, rather than expressions of admiration.

Why mention a simple mispronunciation? Because it’s a nice illustration of a mistake many companies and organizations make in their marketing and communications materials. Like the sales rep in the story, they try to impress their audiences, rather than simply try to communicate with them. And even if they don’t duplicate his mistake, and manage to use all their words correctly, they actually reduce the effectiveness of their efforts.

“Most of us start writing to impress when we’re in school.”

Most of us start writing to impress when we’re in school. We don’t want the teacher to notice our ignorance or failure to pay attention in class, so we sprinkle our essays and book reports with an abundance of four – and five-syllable words. (By the way, your teachers and professors knew exactly what you were trying to do.)

Then, when we get into the corporate world, we keep trying to look smart by using the same approach. We send emails that say “The skew of the data is indicative of nonpossession of appropriate quantities of finished goods pursuant to evaluative criteria suggestive of deficiencies in consumer-driven expectations relative to standard quantifiers reflecting heretofore anticipated degrees of approbation” instead of “Nobody’s buying our product because they think it’s a piece of crap.”

Rather than tell customers “Thank you for letting us know that you’re dissatisfied with our product,” we respond with letters that say “We appreciate your bringing to our attention what you perceive as deficiencies with our MODEL 329ABI VEEBLEFETZER which you purchased in January.”

And when we become especially good at messages like these, we run for Congress. Think I’m being facetious? Read the transcript of a question-and-answer session with a Congressional representative or candidate, and see how many simple questions actually get answered, compared to how many get obscured beneath layers of big words.
If you genuinely want to communicate more effectively, you need to stop trying to impress people, and instead focus your efforts on making sure that they understand you. And the best way to do that is to keep your messages simple, ideally by creating them in language that’s familiar to the recipient.

People are often concerned about what’s called “dumbing down.” They worry that writing to the audience’s level is somehow insulting. Guess what? Writing so that your audience understands you is kind and humane. Writing in a way that exceeds their comprehension is what’s actually insulting.

It’s also futile. After all, if the reader doesn’t understand what you’re saying, he can’t – and won’t – make the effort to read it. Nor will he comprehend it. So why would you expend the money and time involved with sending that message to him?

Generally speaking, the most effective communication uses simple, widely understood words, and short, simple sentences. They may not be dramatic or impressive, but they’ll be understood by a wider audience. Just as important, they present less of an opportunity for misunderstandings to occur because the reader (or you) thought that big word meant something else.

In fact, I hesitated before using the word “exquisite” in the second paragraph for two reasons. First, I recognize that not everyone is familiar with the word, and didn’t want to risk leaving anyone out. Second, it’s a word that can come across as pompous. But it was the perfect choice for the situation and the sentence, so I chose to let it stand.
Sometimes you have to do that. Whether it’s in the interest of accuracy or precision, a particular word may be the ideal choice. But most of the time, you’re better off using a more common equivalent. In many cases, that simpler word is actually more correct.

Take “utilize,” a word that many people choose over “use” because they think it sounds more impressive or formal. “We’re going to utilize radio for this ad campaign.” The two words actually have slightly different meanings. “Utilize” suggests that you’re using something in place of something else that usually serves that function. If you have to pound a nail, you should use a hammer; if a hammer isn’t available, you can utilize a screwdriver to do the same thing.
If you want to present the façade that you’re smarter than the next guy or gal, by all means keep utilizing those big words and complicated expressions. Just don’t be surprised when people either see right through you — or even worse, just ignore you. But if you want your audience to see just how smart you really are, keep it simple, and write to connect, rather than to impress.