It really bugs me when I hear someone use the word "individual" when all they mean is "person." It happens a lot with law-enforcement spokespeople. They also tend to say "vehicle" when they could say "car" or "truck."
I don't think they talk like that when they're hanging out at Dunkin' Donuts; I think they only talk like that when they're facing an audience. And I think they talk like that when they're facing an audience because they're concerned they might not sound sufficiently official or authoritative or, I suspect, smart.
I'm convinced the fear of sounding not smart is behind a lot of not-so-smart writing (and talking). Smart writers — effective writers — don't use "utilize" when they mean "use." They don't use "facilitate" when they mean "lead." They don't use "possess" when they mean "have." There's nothing wrong with "utilize," "facilitate" or "possess." It's just that those words have nuances of meaning that their brethren "use," "lead" and "have" do not (nuances that may not be appreciated by the speaker/writer). But they are longer. Heck, "facilitate" has four times the syllables as "lead" — it must be better. Those who worry they may be unsophisticated when it comes to language frequently reach for a word they think sounds fancier or, in their minds, smarter.
That's the kind of thinking that leads people to use "simplistic" when what they really mean is "simple." "Simplistic" may sound like a better choice than "simple" because, again, three syllables must be smarter than two. And it does pretty much have the word "simple" inside of it. But as most of you know, "simplistic" isn't just a more erudite version of "simple"; it means "characterized by extreme and often misleading simplicity," according to the Visual Thesaurus definition. "Simple" is usually a positive designation. "Simplistic" has negative connotations. Use "simplistic" when all you mean is "simple" and you will surely sound not smart.
Worse than not smart is pretentious, which some of these elevated word choices can make you seem. They remind me of a little girl trying valiantly to appear grown-up while teetering around in Mommy's high heels. Not exactly the effect we're after in our marketing communications.
But more about coptalk. Police trainer Val Van Brocklin addressed this very issue in her wonderful 2008 Officer.com piece "Cops Talk Funny." She says:
"What happens to police officers when they take the stand? ... From recruits in academies to senior officers and command staff, you talk funny when you take the stand. ... Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about. I hang out with you guys. I've worked cases with you, I prepare you for court, I break bread with you, I attend your banquets and award ceremonies. ... In all those contexts, you guys talk pretty normal. But I put you on the stand and you sound like this:
' ... all items depicted in the five photos were later observed by this officer while I was observing the said property which was observed in the trunk of the vehicle. ...'
"When you talk like that, ... you don't sound like a regular person the jury can relate to and identify with ... (empathize with). ... [Your testimony seems like] some highfalutin' word game that has little to do with them. ...
"When asked what behaviors increase a witness' credibility in court, jurors responded that 'uses understandable language' is one of the most important. ... That's why we call it 'straight talk.' This is the critical reason to quit talking funny in court — it hurts your credibility. Credibility is the degree to which the jury believes you — and that's the one confrontation you must win in court."
The same can be said about your credibility if you're writing ad copy or e-blasts or press releases (or, for that matter, your resume), when you're "pleading your case" to your "jury" of readers, people whose ability to relate to and identify with you is critical if you want to persuade them to act.
So next time you find yourself speaking, or writing, in a voice that is not authentically your own (or using words Van Brocklin might deem highfalutin'), cut it out. You don't have to try to sound smart because you are smart — after all, you're reading the Visual Thesaurus magazine, right?
Have you heard someone reach too far while trying to sound smart? Let us know in the comments below!