There's wisdom in children’s books.
When Winnie the Pooh uttered “I am a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me.” he launched a thousand self-help ships. Legions of blogs and books celebrate Winnie’s wisdom courtesy of A.A. Milne. To me that boils down to being understood, being persuasive, and being expansive.¹
Let’s dig into being understood.
Pooh is absolutely right — we do not like complex words — or at least not when they’re aimed at us.
When it comes to actually using complex words on other people though, we forget this fact. Here’s a startling stat: 86% of us admit we deliberately swap simple words for more complex ones — just because we think it makes us seem smarter.² It doesn’t.
In fact half the people who do this, also admit to swapping simple words for more complex ones when they don’t even understand the complex words they’re grabbing at!
The more someone makes us work to get their meaning, the less we trust them. Especially so when simple ideas are presented with complex words. Wondering why something looks like it should be easy but sounds as tangled as a city sewer system makes the audience smell a rat. The resulting brain-clash turns your audience away from your message.³ This is why ‘Blinding with Science’ lives at the lowest levels of the evidence stack.
When something is presented cleanly and simply, it’s easier to process.
When something is easier to process, we’re more inclined to absorb it, to believe it, and to actually like the messenger.⁴ Language complexity is only one aspect. The way something is written also plays a role. Some fonts are harder to read than others. Whether your message is written or spoken, the more you can drive out complexity, the more your audience leans in.
As Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Pooh would approve.
Become a complexity hunter. Take pleasure in puncturing the pompous. Seek and swap-out complex words in stories, presentations, and even emails. Such words are initially easier to spot in their written form. Over time, you’ll develop a sense for when they’re appearing in your spoken words as well.
Every time you practice swapping the tricky for the straight-forward, you take pity on the audience — you make life easier for them.
Storytelling 101 — keep it simple. Simple stories are understood and acted on. Along with surplus language however, we also pack communications with surplus details.
What’s the key nugget you want to get across? Delete details that detract. As an editor I once worked for would yell tell us almost daily: “If in doubt, cut it out.”
More time is always better, right? Wrong.
When highways get jammed, another lane is added. All is great for a while, until more space brings more traffic and the highway just jams again.
More time seldom breeds greater clarity. Just greater traffic.
Jargon is infectious. We catch it from our colleagues.
At the risk of mixing my children’s stories, think about Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. They were fabulous yet oddly invisible garments woven by con-men. It just took one convenient fool to declare “Oh yes — they’re marvelous”, and everyone else quickly followed suit. Check out this article on The BandWagon Effect to find out why.⁵
Jargon works the same way.
No one wants to be the person who says: “Actually — I don’t see it…”. We wait for someone else to take the plunge first. If no-one does though, the jargon lives on.
Making the jargon juggler explain their point in simple terms is the way to get to clarity. It does, however, take a bit of bravery to prick the jargon bubble.
We’ll explore exactly how to burst that balloon in our next article — “Persuading Pooh”.
¹ Here’s my contribution to the genre — the first of three blogs, looking at three different aspects of leadership wisdom held within those twelve little words: “I am a bear of very little brain and long words bother me.” This article is all about understanding. I will follow up with being persuasive and expansive.
² Vozza, Stephanie. “Using Big Words Can Make You Look Smart, but Only If You Do This.” Fast Company, 16 Mar. 2022.
³ Festinger, L., 1957. A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.
⁴ Daniel M. Oppenheimer “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” Applied Cognitive Psychology Oct 31, 2006
⁵ Kendra Cherry “Bandwagon Effect as a Cognitive Bias” verywellmind April 28,2020