Home Innovate Want to Sound Smarter? Keep Your Writing Simple and Jargon Free

Want to Sound Smarter? Keep Your Writing Simple and Jargon Free

A pair of studies come to the same conclusion: Complex, jargon-filled writing makes people question your intelligence.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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Many years ago, I spent a few semesters teaching college writing 101 at a public university. My students were whip smart, gloriously diverse, and super dedicated, but most of them didn't come from the type of schools that provide rock-solid preparation for college. Keen to impress but unsure how, they did what generations of strivers have done before them -- they threw the thesaurus at every assignment. 

The thinking seemed to be that the more fancy words and complex sentence structures they could shoehorn into an essay, the greater their likelihood of getting an A. Much of my job consisted of untangling over-complicated sentences and convincing students that the clarity of their argument mattered a lot more than the number of syllables in the words they chose to express it. 

What has this got to do with grown-up entrepreneurs? Sadly, quite a lot. As anyone who has endured much business writing can tell you, the impulse to puff up a piece of writing with fancy words and high falutin' diction does not end at college graduation. 

The authors of all these terrible reports and memos, like my students, are aiming to sound smart. Instead, they annoy everyone. The internet is full of experts and employees complaining about headache-inducing professional writing stuffed with jargon. What's worse, these professionals don't even achieve their primary aim. Research is clear that if you want to impress everyone with your intelligence, simple, clear writing beats buzzwords and showing off. 

Simple = smart 

One classic study along these lines was conducted by researchers at Princeton. By manipulating both the vocabulary and font used in essays, the researchers found that readers rated authors as more intelligent the simpler and more straightforward the language and font they used for their writing. 

Another more recent study carried out by a team out of Columbia and the University of Southern California looked at the use of professional jargon, specifically. Whether the researchers looked at MBAs participating in pitch competitions or tens of thousands of dissertations, they found the same pattern. The use of jargon wasn't correlated with smarts or professional skill. Instead, researchers found that the people who were most stressed out about their status used the most buzzwords

The authors of both studies are keen to point out that the takeaway here isn't to never use big words. Sometimes a technical or fancy word is the right word for the situation at hand. It captures what you're trying to say elegantly and is understood by the audience you're speaking to. In those cases, big words can absolutely win you points. 

But when you're using jargon when an everyday word could do the job -- or to an audience that's unlikely to be familiar with the term -- then your efforts to sound impressive are almost certainly going to backfire.  

"It's important to point out that this research is not about problems with using long words, but about using long words needlessly," commented Daniel Oppenheimer, author of the Princeton study. "Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers' evaluations of the text and its author."

Classic advice, backed by science 

This advice to use the simplest word you can get away with is not exactly breaking news. Pretty much all writing advice -- from classics like Strunk and White to tweeted writing tips from Harvard linguists -- insists that good writing is simple and easy to understand. 

But clearly, despite decades of repetition, this advice has failed to sink in for many in the business world. Too many professionals are still following in the footsteps of my bright-eyed but clueless students and trying to impress by stuffing their writing full of big words and convoluted phrasings. 

They all have one aim -- to sound smart -- and they're all failing miserably. If you're sometimes guilty of being among them, it's past time you put down the thesaurus and realize the simplest writing possible will make you sound the smartest. 

Photo credit: Getty Images.

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