If you’ve read my book, or spent five minutes with me, you’re well aware that I geek out about the English language. I’ve always been this way. Ever since I was a small human who could actually spell and construct sentences, I’ve been drawn toward writing and speaking. And as I grew, my vocabulary also grew rich in complex, beautiful words.
So imagine my shock and horror when I was told to “tone it down” at one of my first jobs. I still remember this vividly. There I was, a recent college grad with wide eyes and a mind full of outrageously descriptive words, putting together a piece of writing for my boss. I thought it sounded eloquent, each sentence woven together with melodic phrasing. I handed it over to him, proudly awaiting what I was certain would be high praise!
“Tone it down,” he said. And then the death knell: “And stop using the thesaurus.”
I was incensed! How dare he imply these words came from the thesaurus when I knew they were straight out of my very own head? How could he ask for less descriptive language and reduced clarity? He was WRONG!
I did what he asked, but all the while kept shaking my head in disbelief. I felt like I was “dumbing down” my words, sacrificing the content on the page before me.
Well… fast-forward through many years of real-world business experience. Guess what I’ve learned? As much as it pains me to admit this, I now understand that he was actually RIGHT (well, mostly).
No, I did not use a thesaurus then and still do not need one now. But that doesn’t matter. The takeaway from all this is that, in business, simpler is almost always better. Even if you work with highly intelligent engineers or scholars, aim to keep your language clear and concise. Whenever possible, “Use $.50 words instead of $10 words.” (I know; I don’t love that phrase either, but it does convey the gist of this post).
I always was proud of my detailed, academic, expressive writing style. So having to omit fancier words and rework sentences to be more straightforward was (and still is, at times) an exercise in self-restraint. But it’s made me better as a writer, and more refined as a communicator.
So here’s my advice to you, as you go about crafting everything from emails to proposals to white papers – and everything in between…
1. Limit descriptors.
Example: “Come and see our newly renovated, upgraded, clean, gleaming granite countertops!”
Try this instead: “Enjoy our upgrades, including stunning granite countertops!”
2. Use plain language when it gets the job done. “Only $3 more per order” is much easier on the eyes than “Only $3 additional per order.” Plus, it’s better aligned with how people actually speak, so will seem natural (rather than stilted).
3. Shorten sentences. You can nip and tuck a good portion of the words you’re using. Focus on clarity, rather than volume. Let’s say you start with a sentence that reads: “If you’re interested in hearing more about our services and determining whether or not they’re a fit for you, ask us about our free 15-minute consultation!” That’s too much. Get out your scissors and cut it down to: “Free 15-minute consultation available!”
4. Write what you mean. Flowery language can be very pretty, but it can also cloud your message. Consider this…
Example: “You’re about to join the most potently opulent health club that promises you a luxurious atmosphere every time.”
Try this instead: “Welcome to the only health club defined by luxury.”
5. Use your descriptive writing in other outlets! This is my favorite piece of advice. You didn’t think I abandoned my big, beautiful words and creative written expression entirely, did you? No chance! I use simple, clean language when writing for business purposes, but freely use my natural writing style as I work on my novel and personal journaling. So please do embrace your inner writer… just be sure to do so in the right context!