Ad and marketing creatives

Don't Get Smart

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 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!

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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 22nd 2009, 1:20 AM
Comment by: David D.
Cops and other authority figures do just as you say. Use the more "sophisticated" word when the simpler word is enough. There are many examples of public figures doing or trying to do this and they often come off as fools. One of the funniest was President Bush saying that someone "disassembled" when he meant dissembled.

But, I have spent a major portion of my life learning my native language, and I use the words I have learned whenever I can reasonably do so. That voice is my own, my real, my authentic voice. Occasionally I hear disparaging remarks about my "uppity" language, but it is mine.

The thing has two sides. Of course, I do not write ad copy or any of those sorts of things.Regardless, I like your comments very much.
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 3:15 AM
Comment by: Nathan C. (Appomattox, VA)
I couldn't agree more with the article. People want to sound smart, so they try to accomplish this by using BIG words (one might say "sesquipedalian language"). More often than not the polysyllabic word could be replaced by a more direct and appropriate term. Otherwise your speaking and writing will smack of a forced erudition and will typically be ill-received by the reader. Succinctness, clarity, and brevity usually triumph over longwindedness and complexity -- at least when it comes to writing.
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 3:23 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Less IS more!
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 5:40 AM
Comment by: Barry F.
Very practical advice and should always be kept in mind. But what do you do about adequately describing concepts that have deep meaning like "righteousness" or "propitiate"? (Obviously, these terms have very significant meaning within in a Biblical context.) When using "simple" language to convey a deep truth, don't you run the risk of "watering down" or simply misinterpreting its meaning?
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 6:58 AM
Comment by: Mary Lynn S. (Greensburg, PA)
I am fairly certain that the article did not mean that words used in a religious context, such as Propitiation, should be changed to simpler terms. But from a strictly secular point of view, and with no deep truth to mine, I'd probably say I wanted to "appease" or "pacify" my boss. If I said I wanted to "propitiate" him, there would be plenty of misinterpretation! It sounds like there might be a law against something like that...
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 8:11 AM
Comment by: Ira F. (Bayport, MN)
I think you may be missing the point. What these folks may be doing is neutralizing the language while in a professional role to avoid misrepresentation. If you're a cop being interviewed by the media or testifying in court , your words are subject to extreme scrutiny. So if you say someone was driving a car and it turns out it looked like a car, but was actually a commercial vehicle registered as a truck, your testimony becomes questionable. Besides, if you think cops talk funny, listen to lawyers preparing contracts. And do you think doctors say to friends "I slipped on the sidewalk and fell right on my gluteus maximus?"
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 9:03 AM
Comment by: L F.
The comments written by "Anonymous" are correct, people tend have a red pencil mentality, be very PC these days, and will correct you at a moments notice. When you add lawyers into the mix and you can really get yourself in trouble.
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 9:10 AM
Comment by: mac
i use little words so that you may understand me even if it makes you think you are smarter than i
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Ericka M. (Chicago, IL)
Thank you! This is a chronic problem in college term papers.
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Anthony H.
Put me down on the side of the authors. In fact, I think they let official spokesmen off lightly; the quoted Van Brocklin targets police but the problem affects all emergency services and I think the authors hit on the reality when they surmised some offenders are afraid of seeming 'not smart'. Compare an emergency service press statement, for example, with the regular briefings by White House and State Department spokesmen. Never mind the salary differences, it's the tone of the latter compared to the former. It's the tone of someone who wants you to understand whatever he or she is trying to sell you, sorry 'tell' you, versus the tone of someone who wants, first and foremost, the lay audience to understand the complexity of the job of this particular emergency service (and its spokesmen), a task that demands the use of polysyllables and passive voice rather than regular speech and, wherever possible, active voice.
This forlorn practice may be traceable too often to elite practitioners. No doubt we all have a favorite example...searching languidly for ever more recondite phrasing as they aaaahhh their way through paragraph-long sentences - until one yearns hopelessly for their dumbstruck interlocutors to interrupt the glacial delivery with a heavy table ornament upside the head. I imagine that patented look of surprise as mine learns belatedly that he has unwittingly become the role model for fire and amubulance personnel, as well as the constabulary, in their desperate efforts to avoid, eschew even, any trace of the direct and down-to-earth as they describe a rescue, street-fight or highway pile-up.
Strangely, the truly smart people I have met or heard, unfailingly convey their intelligence by taking the trouble to use regular language, common sense imagery and analogy, and by demonstrating the ability to make complex subject matter seem as simple if not obvious as the value of a fire brigade, ambulance service or police force. The moral that seems so hard to learn is that the job of communication is to engage with your audience. Trying to impress them instead doesn't work and usually backfires.
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Esther N.
I think a similar factor to trying to look smart is at work when people "hypercorrect," as in "Mom made this cookie for you and I." This drives me nuts more than any other common error! If Mom made a cookie for me, she made it for you and me!
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 11:33 AM
Comment by: JoAnn T.
Great article. I take issue with one point: simple has two syllables not one!...not to be petty!

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 11:47 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Any time I see a lawyer or a client with a lawyer about to be interviewed on television, I cringe!

More lessons are needed. Real quick!

People have come to think that this is the correct way to speak. It's how we started to go awry with 'between you and me', I think. Super correctness.
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 5:41 PM
Comment by: Karen M.
I run into this a lot at my job (writing and editing procedures for a financial institution, aka bank). I think they try to be business-like, but too often it comes off as pompous. And worse than that, it's sometimes just plain incorrect. I fix it.
Friday October 23rd 2009, 1:04 AM
Comment by: Pete P.
Along the lines of the first comment by David D. I would caution against deliberately simplifying your words because you think you might connect better with your audience. What's more effective is to seek to "match" both, the vocabulary level of your audience and the vocabulary level required for the criticality of the communication. In scientific, engineering, air traffic control and medical circles, using "plain" English can have the effect of introducing imprecision and consequently dangerous ambiguity in the communication. When precise communication is essential, it is important that both persons involved in the communication process have a common and appropriate vocabulary to effectively communicate.

When I was a kid, my younger sister aged five remarked that the food was pungent. This prompted a surprised adult acquaintance to comment that she had a very advanced vocabulary for her age, which puzzled me. Growing up in a British colony my siblings and I had been taught the difference between "pungent," "hot," and "spicy." We didn't think it was "advanced" to use the proper word to convey the proper message to the listener. When I came to the U.S. I realized that many friends in college didn't really know the precise meaning of "pungent." Over time I learned to repeat myself using "hot" or "spicy" if it appeared that the listener didn't seem to comprehend "pungent."
Friday October 23rd 2009, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Not deliberately simplifying is one thing. Using a word or phrase that is incorrect just because it has a more sophisticated sound is another.

"Simplistic' is different from 'simple'.

Car is even more precise than vehicle which could be a truck or a bus or a tractor!

It's a case of suiting the language to the audience AND getting it said correctly. This is especially important where 'simplistic' could be misinterpreted (interpreted correctly actually) and misunderstood as meaning simple because people don't understand the difference. If simple were always used to mean just that, there'd be no confusion.

Simple, isn't it?

Or is that too simplistic? (Giggle)

If one of the reasons that the police are distrusted by juries is their high-flying language, then to simplify it seems to make sense -- as the author of the article says.
Friday October 23rd 2009, 2:31 PM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
I feel this way when someone uses "gentleman" in place of "guy" or "painter" or "representative." I hear it used (without sarcasm) often enough to picture a mustachioed, cane-carrying dandy in a top hat and white gloves about to meet with someone, and it always makes me giggle. Smart? Not exactly.
Friday October 23rd 2009, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Jane B.'s reference above to certain vulgar words as "aaahole" and "mother-fffffff" led me to wonder why such over-used words are not to be mentioned in this forum?
I have an ongoing problem with some of my friends who think our "culture" is not in decline.
"It's no different than when you were a kid!"
I beg to differ.
So many things in our culture have changed...and changed the past 75 years, is it possible for some to not see it?
The changes that we have watched since the mid-30's seem so obvious.
All the wonderful technologies of instant communication, TV, radio, advertising, creature comforts, print media, transportation, have perhaps become invisible in the enjoyment of the "good life".
Are we so immersed in a culture of greed and political corruption that we have gone blind?
Whatever happened to absolute moral value?
The answer is in the question.
Friday October 23rd 2009, 6:56 PM
Comment by: Anthony H.
As to Jane B's request, I don't know much Latin but I do remember that the German-Swiss has a corresponding word that I think is spelt "ashlok" or something similar. Anyway, I believe it's pronounced like that. Apologies to any German-speakers who might be offended!
Saturday October 24th 2009, 12:29 PM
Comment by: James S. (Prospect Park, PA)
But what fun is knowing all these cool words if we can't USE them??
Saturday October 24th 2009, 10:21 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Hey! me too (blatantly curious).
Sunday October 25th 2009, 9:50 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
I'm not sure the more common words = more credible argument works for police. It does ring true for other witnesses but not for police. The difference is the police are professionals, they are talking about their job, thus the jury needs them to sound professional and dispassionate to be credible. For other witnesses, the experiences they are relating are not their everyday experiences, if they sounded professional and dispassionate when relating them, they wouldn't sound credible; instead we'd get the impression that they'd been coached or that their testimony is being staged.
Sunday October 25th 2009, 11:09 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Got busy, let my subscription lapse and missed a lot of fun.

Lots of lingo issues near & dear to the heart of an ex-cop, current lawyer covered here. Police and legal training both have been emphasizing the use of plain everyday language for a couple decades now. Some habits are hard to break. Some stubbornly hang onto tradition and custom.

But, doesn't most every walk of life have their own lingo, where the use of a word is everyday normal? Though to the "rest of us" it seems an awkward use as compared to everyday common man language.

Does this issue then boil down to being irritated, or not, by those who can't leave their work lingo at the office?

I'm gonna be 10-7 now.
Monday October 26th 2009, 2:53 PM
Comment by: ROGER H.
Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them that a description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of things themselves.
Monday October 26th 2009, 10:24 PM
Comment by: Kenneth W. (Minneapolis, MN)
I work in marketing and pr within the information technology industry, and I was just ranting about this earlier tonight while reading some product advertising copy. The language was so contrived it was nearly impossible to understand what the author was trying to say. I had no idea what concepts were being illustrated because whoever wrote the copy was so hung up on using big words.

Oh, and they kept using "utilize" instead of "use".

Great article, it may have saved my sanity for today!
Tuesday October 27th 2009, 1:44 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Hmmm, Roger, you and I will have to have our curiosity unsatisfied, unless someone has the text of the novel 'World Without End' by Follet. I listen to the CDs and can't quite nail the word. My hearing leaves a lot to be desired.

I've tried research. I have a brother who spent years in a seminary, and several high school friends who did the same. Maybe they will know.

I'll let you know, too, Roger, if I hear! (We need some smilies here! Giggle Just a few discrete ones suitable for a language lounge.

I do have sources of those should anyone be interested. Just a few. Sigh!

It's late and I should be sleeping, but I'm bothered by fibromyalgia, though I prefer to think of it as a Chinese set of problems as I can get some relief through acupuncture that way. Sorry for the digression.
Tuesday October 27th 2009, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
Re the discussion about police usage. One, policemen/women are usually not particularly well educated, especially in terms of English, Literature, etc. Two, language used by uniformed personnel is almost always a part of the uniform and is used as a tool to assert authority. My dad, a deputy sheriff, never spoke that way at home, yet a friend's husband (also a deputy), who felt the need to assert this dominance, did. And three, there may well be the insecurity of not having that good of a usage background and having to "talk up" to people who make their livelihoods with words. They feel more confident if they put a few "clinical" sounding words into the mix.

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