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Say more with less - why complex language is often unnecessary

Updated: May 4, 2022


A unique skill is taking something complex and being able to explain it simply and clearly.

Referred to as “the curse of knowledge”, experts in their field might know their stuff, but often don’t make the best educators.


Studies have found that this is because experts struggle to (or simply don’t) put themselves in the shoes of their students. Beginners are more likely to understand concepts that are explained clearly in layman's terms. It’s also been shown that content written in straightforward language is more engaging and effective (more memorable).


But maybe you’re not writing to educate? You could be writing to impress? It might be a sales pitch, a work email, a job application. Complex words make us sound smarter, right?


Complex language and perceived intelligence 🧠


Well, research led by Professor Oppenheimer tested the effectiveness of this theory.

Samples were taken from university personal statements and admissions essays. With the help of a thesaurus, the sets of text were manipulated to range from simple to complex in terms of their language. Students were asked to read the passages as if they were applications to the university. Based on these alone, they decided whether to accept or reject the applicant.


Overall, complex texts had a significantly higher rejection rate. Further analysis found a negative trend between perceived intelligence and complexity, with students rating the authors of the simple texts as the most intelligent.


Interestingly, the authors of the simple text were also perceived to be more trustworthy than those who used unnecessarily complex language - likely because their communication style was more relaxed and natural. Similar results were also found in a study led by Hoozée on readability and credibility (referenced at the end).


So, simple seems to be the way to go. However, Oppenheimer’s study looked at word complexity in a very academic setting. Is this trend found in the real-world as well?


Judges find plain english more persuasive than legalise ⚖️


A study by US attorney Sam Flammer explored the impact of using simple language vs legalese (formal and complex legal terminology) in court. Judges assessed various case summaries written in either plain english or legalese - each case argument was kept the same.


Judges preferred the plain english over the legalese, with 66% of judges rating the plain english text as the most persuasive. With a two third majority, these results may not seem clear-cut. But, it’s important to consider that the participants were specialists in their field (judges), with experience working with legalese. In fact, a study by Hoozée and colleagues found that preference for simple language was less significant when the participants were specialists compared to generalists. So, it seems more compelling that, even when understanding both texts, judges still preferred the simpler version.


Simple language maximises workplace productivity 📈


A critical analysis piece by Grotsky looked at the effect of plain language on organisational performance. Focussing on both internal policies and procedures, as well as customer communication, Grotsky highlights the importance of using plain english to decrease knowledge-gaps between departments, and between companies and their customers.

For example, after an insurance company simplified the language used in a customer form, they received a lower rate of incomplete forms and were able to process more applications.

The full review is referenced below. In short, organisations have found that simple language maximises productivity, increases employee satisfaction and reduces costs.


Things to bear in mind 🐻


There are lots of interesting articles out there on the benefits of simple vs complex language. And it’s very tempting to draw all-or-nothing conclusions on which is better. But, the reality is (ironically) more complex.


There are some important things to bear in mind before questioning every piece you’ve ever written:

  • It’s about using your best judgement - there may be times where a long word is appropriate. It might be more precise or concise in that context.

  • There’s a difference between using straightforward language and being informal - using more conversational language and slang depends on your audience and your style.

  • It’s important to put yourself in your readers’ shoes. And then ask questions like “what would make the most sense?”, “ what questions would I have on this?”, and “would I know what that means or does that need more context?”.

💭"It's important to point out that this research is not about problems with using long words but about using long words needlessly" - Oppenheimer


Summary


In general, writing is best received when it’s precise and clear (‘best received’ can mean lots of things - how well the content is understood, how engaging and memorable the writing is, perceived author intelligence, persuasiveness and trustworthiness).


Like most things, the answer is not clear-cut. Sometimes a long word might be appropriate. But, in most cases, simpler language tends to be the more precise and clear option.

There’s a distinct difference between complexity of expression and the complexity of the ideas shared. Using long, complex words unnecessarily does not make you sound smarter (in fact, it’s the opposite!).


As Oppenheimer put it, there are consequences of utilising erudite vernacular irrespective of necessity. Let’s try that again - there are problems with using long words needlessly.


References 📚

Here's the work we referenced throughout the article:

  1. Flammer, S. (2010). Persuading judges: an empirical analysis of writing style, persuasion, and the use of plain English. Legal Writing: J. Legal Writing Inst., 16, 183.

  2. Grotsky, R. (2004). Plain language: its effect on organizational performance. Workplace Literacy, 50.

  3. Heron, T. D. (1994). Plain language and consumer comprehension: is there an effect?.

  4. Hoozée, S., Maussen, S., & Vangronsveld, P. (2019). The impact of readability of corporate social responsibility information on credibility as perceived by generalist versus specialist readers. Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal.

  5. Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

  6. Reber, R., & Schwarz, N. (1999). Effects of perceptual fluency on judgments of truth. Consciousness and cognition.

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