January 25, 2010 Program Summary

“Best Practices for
Translating Techno-Geek, Corporate-Speak, Marketing Hype, and Academese into Plain English”

Speaker Dr. Tom Sant
At this information-packed event, a highly enthusiastic group listened eagerly as world-renowned speaker, author, consultant, technical communicator, and instructor Dr. Tom Sant (principal of Hyde Park Partners) returned to give us a timely refresher on straightforward writing.

Tom's talk illuminated the fine art of crystal-clear communication that you can apply to any discipline. Whether you're just starting out or have been designing information for years, his insightful tips and best practices on eliminating dysfunctional languages will help you polish your message to a beautiful shine.

We all know the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. If you plop down in the center of Beijing or Madrid or Rio, a year later you'd be speaking pretty good Chinese, Spanish or Portuguese. What many of us don't realize is that we have been plopped down in the middle of languages that simply don't work. Unfortunately, we unconsciously start imitating them because they're all around us and our work suffers as a result.

What are these languages? Fluff. Guff. Geek. Weasel. Languages that people use instead of clear English. Languages that confuse or alienate our readers, obscure our points, and undercut our credibility.

Tom explained how to eliminate these dysfunctional languages in our own writing and how to help clients or employers understand that they don't work and need to be removed from the Web sites, technical manuals, proposals, presentations and other business documents that we are helping them create.

Read Tom's clear writing tips, below, and download his PowerPoint presentation, linked further down.

Why Big Words Don't Work
by Dr. Tom Sant

Recently I came across a very interesting bit of research. It proved something that we all suspected. And it also revealed something new and important.

"The Language of Success" by Dr. Tom SantThe research was about the impact of using big words.

In The Language of Success, I make the point that you can dramatically improve the clarity of your writing if you just write shorter sentences and use shorter words.

Oppenheimer's Imaginative Study

Now, research conducted by Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychology professor at Princeton, proves the part about big words.

People use big words when they’re trying extra hard to sound smart. A survey of undergraduate students at Stanford found that over 86 percent of them admitted to using big words in their writing in an attempt to make it sound more valid or more intelligent. And nearly two-thirds also admitted turning to a thesaurus to find more complex words to give their writing a boost.

As Oppenheimer points out, our culture reinforces the notion that large vocabularies correlate with high intelligence. The implicit message is that if you’re really smart, you’ll use big words in your writing. And people do exactly that, even though nearly every text book on writing emphasizes the value of simplicity and directness.

What Oppenheimer did was ingenious. He took six essays that had been written for admission to the graduate program in English and rewrote them, substituting every noun, verb and adjective with a longer synonym taken from the Microsoft 2000 thesaurus. He had his subjects read either the original version of the essay or the one that was made more complex and then decide if the person should be admitted to the graduate program, rating their confidence on a seven-point scale. They were then asked how difficult the writing was to understand, also on a seven-point scale.

I like this experiment because it’s forcing readers to make a kind of “buying decision,” similar to what our clients do when they read our proposals. By forcing them to make a choice in addition to rating the complexity, we get a sense of what impact complex language has on the decision-making process.

The Results of Oppenheimer's Research

What Oppenheimer found was what you probably expected: The more complex essays were rated substantially harder to understand. And the level of complexity had a consistent influence on the “buying decision,” with highly complex essays rated much more negatively than the original, simpler versions. Thus, as Oppenheimer’s paper concludes, increasing the complexity of your writing does not make you look smarter.

Oppenheimer ran other versions of the test to make sure the choices weren’t based on the fact that randomly substituting big words for little ones might produce some very odd sounding English. Even when he controlled for style, the effect of big words was the same: people didn’t like reading and preferred the simpler version and think that the author of simpler writing is more intelligent than the author of a complex text.

More complex writing gets a lower rating because big words reduce the fluency with which we can read. Complex language is simply harder to decode.

Oppenheimer’s conclusion is worth remembering when we’re writing a proposal, marketing materials, a sales letter, or preparing a presentation: Although many people “use a strategy of complexity…at campuses and businesses across the country…such strategies tend to backfire.”

Simple words are only part of the solution to making our writing clear, but they’re an important part. As Winston Churchill once said, “Short words are the best words, and old words, when they are short, are the best words of all.”

Oppenheimer’s study was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20:139-156 (2006).

Copyright 2010 Tom Sant (see below for bio information)

Downloads & Resources:

For best results, please use the following tips when downloading files:

  • Windows Internet Explorer: Right-click on the link and select Save Target As... You will be prompted to save the file to a specific location on your hard drive.

  • Other platforms or browsers: Right-click on the link (click and hold on the Mac) and select Download link to disk, Save Link As... or a similar command. You will be prompted to save the file to a specific location on your hard drive.

Presentation downloads and more information:

Questions? Please e-mail:

  • tsant@hydeparkpartnerscal.com
Best Practices for Translating
Techno-Geek, Corporate-Speak, Marketing Hype, and Academese into Plain English”
Date: Monday evening, January 25, 2010

Tom Sant has been called "America's foremost proposals expert" by the American Management Association and was named one of the "Ten Best Trainers in the World" by Selling Power magazine. He is the author of Persuasive Business Proposals, which has revolutionized the way businesses write proposals and has increased win ratios for hundreds of companies all over the world.

Tom's latest study of the fundamentals of professional sales, The Giants of Sales, traces the evolution of modern sales techniques, showing which techniques work and why, linking them to fundamental principles of human psychology. His newest book, The Language of Success, shows how to produce writing that informs, persuades, and gets results. Tom has helped thousands of people around the world improve their ability to deliver the right message the right way. He has been a popular keynote speaker at conferences around the world, from New York and London to Istanbul and Perth.

As a proposal consultant, Tom has written over $30 billion in winning proposals for both private sector and government contracts. Tom's clients include Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Microsoft, Johnson Controls, Booz Allen, NCR, Accenture, Dell, HSBC, Motorola, Kaiser Permanente, and hundreds more. Tom is the principal of San Luis Obispo-based Hyde Park Partners (http://hydeparkpartnerscal.com).

Disclaimer, credits, copyrightGet Acrobat ReaderSome articles or linked resources may be in Portable Document Format (PDF). To download the free Acrobat Reader, click the icon at right. To install the Reader, double-click the downloaded file.

Disclaimer and credits