When Trying to Sound Smart is a Dumb Idea

I’d like to take you back a few years. Young Jay was sitting in the family’s living room, half-paying attention to the evening news that my parents were watching. The reporter was talking about “the Euthanasia” problem.

My first thought? Is this about Chinese gangs?

Now, admittedly, I was only eight or nine at the time, but that moment stuck with me. Now, it’s a funny anecdote; but it serves as an important – and early learned -- lesson about the value of linguistic clarity.

Yes, many adults know what euthanasia means, but isn’t assisted suicide a more common – and easily digestible (though likely more political) – term? Some writers tend to fall into the trap of trying to make their prose sound more impressive by using big words.

Personally, I’d rather be smart than sound smart. And while the former often leads to the latter; trying to force the latter can comprise the former! In fact, the best way to show how smart you are is to ensure your audience understands what you’re talking about!

Healthcare and science communities are notorious for falling into that jargon-rich trap, but one could almost justify that behaviour considering the audience. So what’s the rationale for businesses using that type of language?

At the root of it is trust and authority. Many managers (and some misguided writers) believe that polysyllabic terminology is the only way to ensure your readers view you as a trusted and authoritative source. But instead of sending your readers scrambling for a thesaurus, wouldn’t that time be better spent reading content that has real, immediately understood, and long-lasting value to them?

After all, would you rather teach your customers how smart you are or teach them how valuable your information is to them?

There’s a danger too in using big words – and that’s misusing them. I once worked with someone who peppered her language with words designed to impress. Unfortunately, she rarely used them properly – either mispronouncing them or committing any number of grammatical atrocities upon them. Her efforts to sound impressive actually served to undermine her credibility.

In the end, it takes confidence to allow your words and ideas to stand on their own, without being propped up with superfluous terminology. The difference is that anyone can sound smart; but actually being smart is something else. While myocardial infarction and heart attack mean the same thing, which term means more to a broader demographic?

You likely experience these over-expressions on a daily basis, especially if you’re in the business community:

  • Utilize instead of use (utilize is specific to science; anywhere else is not just pretentious – it’s wrong!);
  • Core competencies – the next time I hear someone talk about “peripheral” competencies will be the first. What’s wrong with “strengths” or “skills”?
  • Resources – yes, those resources are often utilized or deployed strategically, aren’t they? You know what those resources often are? People. Humanize it! Staff, people, employees – anything but resources;
  • Learnings – What are your learnings from that project? Well, hopefully item number one is that learning is not a noun! What’s wrong with simply saying, “lessons,” “results,” or “observations?” Even better, how about discussing what lessons were learned.
  • Leverage – it’s everywhere in business. I understand that. It doesn’t mean I have to like it. People all around the business world are leveraging their resources and core competencies like there’s no tomorrow. You can argue its merits, but overall it’s a word that’s played out and empty. Unless you’re talking about “having leverage,” it’s likely more effective to use “use,” “capitalize,” or “benefit from.”

Does that mean you should never use so-called big words? Of course not! The English language is a wonderful and constantly evolving beast – and this is a good thing (after all, if we all went around speaking like Beowulf, we’d be a nation of chronic migraineurs). But the key purpose of language is to provide us with an opportunity to express ourselves to our community.

It all comes down to your goals. Personally, I’d rather as many people as possible understand my ideas or get to know my product. Yes, I could write something using every supercilious trick in the book, but all I’d end up doing is alienating a significant percentage of my potential audience.

And it’s not about undermining the intelligence of that audience. Most people are able to understand concepts, regardless of the level of language that you use. But you run the risk of frustrating them or worse – making them think of you as that obnoxious and pretentious know-it-all at the party. You know, the one you make every effort to avoid?

If your polysyllabic terminology and pretentious word choices only serves to undermine your ability to share your great idea or product with the masses, then that’s just dumb.

Making it easy for customers to understand the value that you bring? That’s just smart business no matter how you phrase it.


Questions Answered

Why should I use simple language?

How do I avoid jargon?



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