Simple words

Insecure writers often fall into the complexity trap. If I use complex words and syntax, they think, then people will think I’m saying profound things.

No. Generally what happens when you use complex words and syntax is that you lose your reader’s attention.

You’ll lose that attention even faster if you’re using complex language in a speech. At least when it’s in print, people have the option to go back and re-read. Although you shouldn’t count on it, what with shortening attention spans and increasing demands on our time. In a world where people practice “one and done” when reading and processing emails, how much time do you think they’ll make to re-read and decode your Joycean business prose?

But don’t people equate simple words with simple thoughts?

Try this speech on for size—this video links to the closing five minutes or so. Dean James Ryan of the Harvard Graduate School of Education uses the simplest of words—a two-syllable, two-word question fragment—to hook his listeners. He follows up with several other simply worded questions. But he uses those questions to build a though-provoking and even profound message.

I’ll admit the setting does help. Few people will accuse you of being simple-minded if you’re speaking in front of a backdrop that has HARVARD written all over it.

But, really, who wouldn’t be proud to give this speech, or one like it? James Ryan connects with his audience—he got your attention, right? (And you’re just watching on video.) He takes us into unexpected territory. He makes us think. He moves us.

And this part of his text never rises above a 9th Grade level. Ninth grade! The kinds of students Harvard accepts could probably understand that before they get out of elementary school—and here he is speaking to graduate students. Here’s the full text of his speech, if you’re interested.

Dean Ryan asks five excellent questions (and a bonus sixth at the end). I have one more for you: Would you rather have your audience focus on implementing your ideas or on decoding your language?

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