13 responses to ‘dumbing-down’ writing

A baker’s dozen arguments to tap into when someone accuses you of oversimplifying your writing — along with one common retort you probably should skip.

The most common objection my clients make to clear, concise writing is that making stuff easy to understand is dumbing down.

The question fellow writers ask me most often is “how do I persuade my clients being clear and concise isn’t dumbing down?”

Here’s what I tell them:

1. No one will ever complain that a piece of writing’s too easy to read

I’ve written for derivatives experts, lawyers, economists, Cambridge academics.

Not one of them has ever said: “Gee, I wish I’d had to concentrate more when reading that.”

2. In the words of leading junk mail writer, Andy Maslen: There’s no such thing as B2B-lish

Here’s why. Take a look at this list of just some of the things a non-business type would rather do than read your copy:

Daydream
Make a cup of tea
Play with the kids
Sleep
Look at pictures of naked people
Get drunk
Flirt with a colleague
Text a mate
Boast about their fabulous life on Facebook
Get pissed off about others boasting about their fabulous lives on Facebook
Watch Breaking Bad
Lose half a day to Pinterest
Lose a grand on online poker
Read something they’ve actually paid for

And here’s a list of things a busy executive would rather do:

Day dream
Make a cup of tea
Play with the kids
Sleep
Look at pictures of naked people
Get drunk
Flirt with a colleague
Text a mate
Boast about their fabulous life on Facebook
Get pissed off about others boasting about their fabulous lives on Facebook
Watch “Breaking Bad”
Lose half a day to Pinterest
Lose a grand on online poker
Read something they’ve actually paid for

Yep, you’ve got it. Business people are no different from the rest of us. So, talk to them as you’d talk to me.

3. On that note, this from the must-bookmark manifesto for the simple scribe

“You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, or the rather dishy person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your mother. You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson’s Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second, given a chance.”

4. People don’t do business with businesses…

… they do business with people.

Yeah, the “people don’t do business with businesses blah blah blah” thing is a cliché, but what corporate client doesn’t love a cliché?

Anyway, have you gotten the message that we’re writing for human beings, not for corporate robots?

5. The Economist is written for smart people, right?

Well, here’s how that venerable magazine’s style guide opens:

“The first requirement of The Economist is that it should be readily understandable. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.”

6. Just because a PC is harder to use than a Mac, that doesn’t make it smarter

The opposite is true, in fact.

As the late, great Steve Jobs once said:

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

7. Steve Jobs wasn’t the only genius who “got” simplicity

Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, meine Damen und Herren, I give you:

Einstein: “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Richard Feynman: “You can always recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.”

Winston Churchill: “A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life.”

8. Simplicity = truth = trust

Notice that the last two geniuses in No. 7 linked simplicity with truth? The connection doesn’t apply only to physics and politics, you know.

After all, what modern business doesn’t bang on incessantly about “transparency”?

If your client wants to build trust among investors/clients/employees/the public, they have to keep their writing transparent (aka simple).

Just for contrast, look at this example of a writer who obscures a tricky truth with gobbledygook.

9. A copywriter’s job isn’t to make them think; it’s to make them buy

Yeah, even if you’re in employee engagement or some other field you think isn’t sales-y, you’re in the business of persuasion.

Everything you write should elicit some kind of action from your reader, whether it’s forking out a fiver or working in a different way. The harder they have to sweat to read your stuff, the less chance you’ve got of getting them to do what you want.

10. You’re alienating 10 percent of your readers if you don’t make it easy

If your employees/customers/investors are typical of the general population, 10 percent are dyslexic.

Actually, if they’re smarter or more “businessy” than the general population, they may be even more likely to be dyslexic. (Some famous dyslexics: Anita Roddick, Richard Branson and — yes, him again — Einstein.)

Make your writing complex and you’re making something at least 10 percent of your readers struggle to do even harder. That’s not just not fair; it’s also a pretty stupid way to do business. (And what would the diversity team say?)

11. Use jargon, and 74 percent of people will think you don’t understand your own words

For this statistic and a heap of others that should help you persuade them to keep things simple, check out this infographic.

12. Bad writing = bad manners

American philosopher Brand Blanshard once said: “Persistently obscure writers will usually be found to be defective human beings.”

What he meant was that you can tell how a person treats other people by the way they treat their readers.

And someone who deliberately obscures his or her meaning is a bad-mannered bully who tries to humiliate others into submission. (Thanks to Michael Billig for introducing me to Blanshard’s ideas in his book Learn to Write Badly.)

13. Psychologists have proven over and over that simplicity works better than complexity

There’s a thing psychologists call “cognitive fluency,” i.e., whether something is easy to think about.

Experiments on cognitive fluency have shown that easy to understand = more profitable, more pleasurable, more intelligent, and safer.

Check out these eight studies that prove the point.

On the other hand, don’t make the plea for “plain English”

Next time someone wants to gussy up your copy with a few “leverages,” a bit of “operationalizing,” or a sprinkling of “integration,” don’t harangue them about the Plain English Campaign.

“Plain” is not the same as “simple.” A plain outfit is frumpy. A simple outfit is elegant. And which would you rather eat? Plain food? Or simple food? (Overcooked cabbage? Or spaghetti alle vongole?)

A version of this article first appeared on DorisAndBertie.

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