When we communicate at work, our primary objective is to get ideas from our minds directly into someone else’s quickly, concisely, and accurately. Our goal is to express—not impress.
The manager’s utilization of corporate training facilities is less than optimal.
However, would anyone ever say:
My three-year old son’s utilization of the bathroom facilities is less than optimal.
Good ideas are impressive all on their own
Unless a particular word provides greater precision or nuance, it’s best to stick with the simplest, most direct words we can find. Some of the most eloquent communications in the world have been extremely simple:
- Jesus wept. (This is the shortest sentence in the Bible.)
- “The news from France is very bad.” Winston Churchill said this in his speech about Dunkirk. His message was much stronger than if he had said, “The situation in France is becoming increasingly serious.”
- Roosevelt summed it up when he said, “Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.”
Clarity is critical—an anecdote
Puffed up words don’t make us look smarter, but they can detract from the clarity of our message.
A plumber in New York City once wrote to the Federal Bureau of Standards that he had found hydrochloric acid did a good job of cleaning out clogged drains.
The bureau wrote: The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but the corrosive residue is incompatible with metallic permanence.
The plumber replied he was glad the bureau agreed.
Again, the bureau wrote: We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residue with hydrochloric acid and suggest you use an alternative procedure.
The plumber was happy again that the bureau agreed with him.
Finally, the bureau wrote: Don’t use hydrochloric acid. It eats the hell out of the pipes.
What’s unique about the following passage?
In my business writing classes, I used to ask participants to describe what was unique about these paragraphs. Can you see what the author has done?
Small words can be crisp, brief, terse—go to the point like a knife. They have a charm all their own. They dance, twist, turn, sing. Like sparks in the night, they light the way for the eyes of those who read. They are the grace notes of prose. You know what they say the way you know a day is bright and fair—at first sight. And you find, as you read, that you like the way they say it. Small words are gay. And they can catch large thoughts and hold them up for all to see, like rare stones in rings of gold, or joy in the eyes of a child. Some make you feel, as well as see: the cold deep dark of night, the hot salt string of tears.
Small words move with ease where big words stand still—or worse bog down and get in the way of what you want to say . . .
The above is an excerpt from Joseph Ecclesine’s “Advice to Scientists—in Words of One Syllable,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 1965. His advice was to communicate in the clearest, most concise way possible–especially when we are communicating about complex topics. In spite of the years that have passed since Mr. Ecclesine wrote his article, I don’t think much has changed about the best way to communicate, do you?