When I was in graduate school for particle physics I attended a lot of lectures where I didn't understand much.
That's not hard to imagine, I'm sure.
During most of those lectures I assumed that I just didn't have enough knowledge to grasp what was being said.
However, after I left academia and entered the corporate world, I found the same thing.
Certain people would present for thirty minutes or an hour using all the right jargon, but when they were done I realized I hadn't understood one freakin' thing they said.
Business is not rocket science (or particle physics). I should have been able to understand at least part of their presentations.
Instead of continuing to assume that I didn't get it, I wondered if others in the room were feeling the same way--assuming it was over their heads.
I also wondered if the presenter was as clueless as his audience.
Perhaps he only had a talent for pushing around jargony words to create the impression of knowing something.
Have you ever had that feeling in a meeting? When you wanted to ask a question, but you looked around the room and everyone else was nodding their heads like they understood?
So, you concluded that asking a dumb question was not high on your priority list for the day.
So you kept quiet.
Questions Are Subversive (In a Good Way)
Well, I decided to start asking questions to find out if the emperor was wearing any clothes.
In response to my dumb questions, I usually got more nonsensical double talk.
In other cases, speakers were perturbed and tried to shame me into silence ("Really? Everyone knows the answer to that!" "Oh, you're new here.")
In still other cases I asked follow up questions until I could assess for myself that this person was really clueless, or not, as was sometimes the case.
It was an eye-opener to realize that a certain percentage of people were really good at faking it. They had a whole arsenal of tools designed to skirt questions, bluff their way through and shame people into submission.
Shorter Words Make You Look Smarter
Unfortunately, writers do this, too, especially beginning writers. I don't think the motive is always malicious--although sometimes it is--but in order to sound smart, we may be tempted to throw around a bunch of unnecessarily big words.
It turns out, though, that using big words makes you look dumber, not smarter.
Research from Princeton University published in Applied Cognitive Psychology shows us that people associate the use of shorter words with higher intelligence.
I conclude from this study that even though we tend to give jargon-pushers the benefit of the doubt during a meeting, we still walk away with a low opinion of them.
On the other hand, when someone presents a simple idea with simple words, we connect with the content and therefore see the person as more intelligent.
So what does all of this tell us? I believe it says that how you say something is not nearly as important as having something to say and communicating it in a way that people can understand.
This is why my number one rule for good writing is clarity.
Don't just write for the sake of writing. Have a point, strive to be clear and use shorter words. Your readers will thank you and they'll think you're more intelligent.
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