In corporate writing, technical writing, or public relations writing, using overly complex words to sound impressive doesn’t work, according to a psychologist who asked readers what they thought.
People can strengthen their professional image through their writing, but there is a way to do it and a way not to. Some people try to present an image of academic accomplishment or try to make their argument seem more credible by sprinkling their conversation with obscure language or words of four or five syllables. So psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer conducted an experiment to find out if this strategy is effective.
He took six essays written by English literature graduate students who had applied to Stanford, and he created a highly complex version of each essay by replacing every noun, verb, and adjective with the longest synonym he could find in a thesaurus. Participants in the study read the complex version and were asked how difficult it was to understand and whether the applicant should be admitted to Stanford’s graduate school.
“Simple texts were given higher ratings than moderately complex texts, which were, in turn, given higher ratings than highly complex texts,” Oppenheimer said in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology. “Complex texts were less likely than clear texts to lead to acceptance decisions.” The experiment “strongly suggests that complex vocabulary makes texts harder to read, which in turn lowers judgments of an author’s intelligence.”
The experiment carries a lesson for corporate leaders who, facing crucial decisions, might use more complex vocabulary and end up undermining people’s confidence in their leadership ability.
“Write simply and clearly if you can,” says Oppenheimer, “and you’ll more likely be thought of as intelligent.”
Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at Amazon.com.