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Want to look smart? Keep it simple!

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Ever tried to impress people you were talking to?

Sprinkling some jargon or complicated words here and there, to show them how much you know? Especially if the stakes are high and you need to position yourself as someone who knows their stuff…

If you think that complex words help you look smarter, this interesting study by Professor D.M. Oppenheimer is an eye-opener. According to his research, complicated words not only don’t make us seem smart, they even have the opposite effect.

When a text had complex words instead of simpler alternatives, the well-educated participants judged the author as less intelligent.

However, if a complex word is more specific than its simpler alternative, it’s fine to use it. This is where it gets a bit confusing. How do we know if we should use a simpler word or not?

To me, the study’s main lesson is to not look up complex words in the dictionary to “add” artificial intellect. We should keep it simple and natural like the Learning Ninja blog.

Pity much?

When someone uses big words for no reason, they can also come off as insecure or less capable.
This was not investigated in this study, but seems logical.

I have a colleague who always speaks very formally, even if he’s talking about his weekend. He doesn’t sound smart, but stuck-up.
In some professional situations, formal speech can be necessary, but in our everyday office life, it’s pretty annoying.

You can be a very smart person without sounding like a dictionary. If they have to use complex words, maybe they don’t know their stuff that well.

Professor Oppenheimer also mentions that the rules for industry or expert jargon might be different. In this context, simple words and short sentences might cost us some of our credibility. But this possibility needs to be researched on ist own.

I would love to write and see conversational content at work, but it’s a deeply ingrained belief that engineers selling to engineers need to sound smart at all costs.
Nothing short of an official research, proving otherwise, will do. And even then, they still might not believe that engineers also like a personal touch.

So what does this all mean for us?

When we write or talk, we want to connect with others. There is no need for fancy words, and using them can actually backfire. We don’t want to alienate our audience. What matters is, that we get our message across.

So, be smart and keep it simple. And you can also improve your writing with this simple trick.


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Your turn

Do you have any examples where complex words or formal speech backfired? Maybe you received a letter or an email that made you think “Whatever, Einstein”.

Or you have a great before/after simpification story. Please share!

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