Why using fancy words can be a dangerous game

Famous television doctor Mehmet Oz invested millions into an unsuccessful effort to capture one of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seats, and I’m pretty confident a single word had plenty to do with his defeat.

While trying to prove he was just a regular guy by stopping in a supermarket to grab items for dinner, the celebrity medico was startled by the steep price of vegetables his wife had requested for an appetizer. He turned to the camera, bemoaning having to pay $20 for crudité.

It’s a word foodies know well, but one the average Keystone State resident (or Hoosier) would never use to describe a veggie tray. Average voters saw Dr. Oz’s use of a French culinary term as snobbery and a sign his life and theirs were vastly different. And in an era in which one of the most common measures of a candidate is whether you’d enjoy chatting over a beer with them, elitism is deadly.

We chuckle when politicians make such ham-handed moves, but it happens far more often than most companies and executives realize. People pepper their writing with fancy words as a way of asserting their intellect and superiority. They’ll inject five-syllable words into that three-line email to the staff. Or they’ll make sure their website is written to intellectuals instead of the folks who actually need what they sell.

That’s especially true with words from foreign languages. People hear these words used by others and insert them into their own writing to make it sound more sophisticated. It might … except so many never bother to verify how the words are spelled. That wonderful French exclamation of discovery or presentation—Voilà!—shows up as “Walla!” in emails, presentations, and blog posts. (“Walla” is not a word, but it is half of the name of a community in Washington State.)

Another great example involves “nothing,” or as Spanish-speakers describe it, nada. People who have heard others use the word aloud assume it must be spelled “notta” because that’s exactly how it sounds. When verifying that a subordinate grasps the direction they’ve just delivered, they use “capeesh?” instead of Italian’s capisce. When they ask me to insert a segway between two paragraphs I’ve written, I assume they’re asking for the Roman segue and not Paul Blart’s favorite ride. I can’t even begin to count the invitations I’ve received from companies (and wedding invitations) butchering the spelling of “hors d’oeuvres” in unimaginable ways. And it’s only fitting to end the list with those Latin favorites, “per say” and “ex cetera” (per se and et cetera are the correct spellings).

Restaurant menus listing “comestibles,” business plans promoting “paradigms,” emails using “ergo,” your website promising a “plethora” of solutions — they’re all 100 percent accurate and 99 percent ineffective, whether they’re coming from a CEO or a line employee.

You see, no matter what you’re communicating, the simpler the language, the better. When you use familiar words and simple sentence structure, most people will immediately understand the message you’re trying to convey. They aren’t going to have to stop and wonder what “lugubrious” means and why you chose that instead of “sad.” Even if you’re an attorney addressing the appellate bench, “ergo” never makes anyone sound smarter.

The idea of simple language flies in the face of what most of us learned in those English and composition classes, where we were instructed to write in highly formal style, using elegantly structured paragraphs and sections … and where we were rewarded for introducing obscure and complex words. When they said this was the correct way to write, they were partially correct: it’s the only acceptable way to write in the academic world.

Your blog post on tips for saving energy, your email to motivate the sales team, your outreach to a colleague—none of those deserve to be developed in that complex, convoluted, and stuffy prose you created (or continue to create) in your classwork. Instead, they should all be drafted in simple, straightforward language.

In fact, the more your writing resembles the way you speak, the better. When we read, we “hear” the words in our brains, and the source, the word choices, the sentence structure, and more all shape their voice and tone. If it sounds like a friendly conversation with a friend, we’re more receptive than if it sounds like an assignment from that professor who killed your GPA.

There’s another key benefit to communicating in simple ways: you’ll trigger fewer misunderstandings and mistakes. Many people become embarrassed when they don’t recognize a word, so they concoct a definition that makes sense to them. When you used that big word in an effort to be more specific with your request, it meant something completely different to them. Simple words and simple phrases always simply accomplish more than fancier options.