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The danger of using too many big words

12th September 2023

Originally posted to www.carnsight.com 

In an ideal world, your carefully crafted message would reach your desired audience under perfect conditions: a quiet room, undivided attention, and a receptive mindset. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the reality at all. As PRs, we’re all too familiar with this. There’s a lot of discourse around cutting through the clutter and reaching your audience, whether it be from the perspective of marketers or film makers or PRs like us. But instead of getting into all of  the mechanics of that in one go, we’re starting with a simpler approach today.

We’re sharing one small change that can might make a big difference, and it all comes down to the perils of using too many big words.

Why you need to cut to the chase

One school of thought suggests that using big or unusual words is a surefire way to come across as knowing what you’re talking about. That an impressive vocabulary lends credibility. And sure, to an extent it does. But one key piece of the puzzle here is that oftentimes your audience doesn’t operate with the same sphere of reference, especially if you’re a business. They’re probably looking towards you and your content for a reason, perhaps that they aren’t as well versed in the area and are looking to learn or outsource.

So again, don’t get me wrong; there’s always value in a carefully honed vocabulary. But there is equal value in knowing when and how to use it. Context plays a big role here, and so does knowing your audience. Top tip here – if you are using more unusual or ‘big’ words, make sure you’re using them correctly, and if they’re technical, do a reality check to make sure your audience knows them too or give enough context clues so its straightforward. Otherwise this could have the opposite of the desired effect.

What is said vs what is heard vs what is understood

Another reality here is that your post/content is unlikely to actually get your point across if it’s too convoluted or time-intensive to understand quickly. In communication theory and practice, there are basic models of communication, many of which look at how linear message transmission and reception occurs between humans.

The thing is though, communication isn’t often linear these days. It can be messy or out of order, interrupted or misrepresented. There are so many factors that mediate how we receive, decode, and interpret information. Unfortunately, a lot of these aren’t easily something you as the sender can control. You don’t know where the audience will be receiving your message, if they’ll be interrupted by children or coworkers or are watching TV in the background, they might have ads pop up disrupt the flow. Or they might simply scroll away.

The point is, you should write with the assumption that your audience is distracted. That the message could easily be interrupted, and that it has a lot working against simple smooth reception on the other end.

A proactive approach

Word choice, sentence length, and paragraph structure all impact things like cohesion, flow, and comprehension. The technical nitty-gritty of this may come easier to some. But for others, here’s one easy to understand and even easier to implement tip that if you want to skip the mechanical deep dive.

That is: keep it simple stupid. Or KISS.

Ideally, your post should to be easy to read and easier to skim. Because the reality is, our attention span is not what it used to be. We have less time and maybe even less mental space to process confusing or complex information at the rate we’re exposed to it. We need the important things served up right under our nose, with big signs and underlined phrases. Make your message clear and obvious, and yes, essentially do the work for them.

Some final quick tips

Like I said, we’ll save you the over-complicated explanation of communication mechanics for another post. Today’s focus was a bit broader and focused on a trend we’ve noticed popping up in recent years, but we couldn’t leave you completely in the dark after having so much to say about what not to do. So here’s a little bit more on what you can do to optimise message reception:

  1. Repetition with variation: frequency is one simple way to enhance message retention, but the key here is to not simply restate the same information worded in a very similar way. Instead, vary your approach to keep the message fresh and engaging. Think of it like ‘same gift, different wrapping’. What’s beneath is still the same, but it’s delivered differently.
  2. Headings and subheadings: if the aim is readability, then subheadings are your best friends. They’re the epitome of linguistic sign post, guiding your readers through your content – especially if they’re a time- or attention-poor skimmer (which many of us are these days). Clear and concise headings help your audience to quickly ascertain relevance, so where applicable, we’d suggest making good use of them. Make sure they stand out to if your formatting system allows (e.g. bold, italicise, underline or resize), and follow the same rule for each one to preserve consistency.
  3. Bullet points and lists: similar to the previous point, this is all about making complex information simple, accessible, and digestible. If you have a series of related points to make, consider using bullet points, numbered lists, or these days even a series of emojis.
  4. Sensory imagery: another great way to say more whilst saying less and leave a lasting impact is to engage multiple senses. Employ descriptive language that helps readers visualise and imagine your message better, but be careful not to take it too far that thighs get convoluted or unnecessarily bogged down.
  5. Visual appeal: make use of visuals whenever possible. A thoughtfully-placed infographic or image can convey information much faster than any block of text, with the average visual information processing speeds much faster (the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text). Hence, visuals not only capture attention but also aid in comprehension.
  6. White space makes a difference: it’s very easy to underestimate the power of blank space on a page, especially for the attention-poor, over-stimulated audience. It provides visual relief and makes content feel less intimidating. A cluttered often incites feelings of overwhelm for readers, and is one of those common barriers to message reception we mentioned earlier.
  7. Know your audience: understanding your audience is one step, but building on this insight by tailoring your message to their needs, preferences, and prior knowledge is the next.
  8. Testing and feedback: this is final point is more for those big important messages, as most of us won’t have the time or resources to message test every Linked In post or email. But if you are preparing something that needs to have a sharper impact, we’d recommend you consider testing it with a small sample audience before sharing it with the intended audience. Get feedback on clarity, engagement, and comprehension. Ask your audience what they think you’re trying to say before you tell them. This may help to make more effective adjustments.

While you can’t control everything when it comes your message and what your audience takes away from it, but by trying out some of these tips there’s progress to be seen. That’s it from us for now, but stay tuned for a deeper exploration to come. In the meantime, why not take a look at this post from our Social Media Manager Yasmin, who shares her insight into the differences between LinkedIn for business and personal profiles.

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About Carnsight Communications

At Carnsight Communications we create strategies and campaigns to showcase our clients’ brilliant work through PR, content and social media. We help them get noticed by the right audience, at the right time. We specialise in creative agency PR.

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