Once, as a twenty-something, newly minted U.S. Marine Corps officer, I was asked by my commanding officer to fill in at a big staff meeting.
I was eager to impress this room full of experienced, confident warriors. After all, this would be their first impression of me. I had to make it good. I was pretty proud of myself for working the word “tangential” into my presentation — especially after I received four or five amazed looks. Unfortunately, I pronounced the word “tangenital” and didn’t realize my mistake until I heard someone use the word correctly later.
I’m all for using the right word, especially if it’s more accurate and shorter than another option. For example, “esoteric” has a very specific meaning that’s best described by using that word. But when you start saying things like “utilize” instead of “use,” you’re wasting syllables for the sole purpose of sounding smart. When you try to make yourself sound smarter by using bigger words, you look silly at best — and unapproachable, unlikeable, or fake at worst.
The Benefits of Speaking Simply
Next time you pull out your thesaurus, ask yourself why. Is it to avoid repetition, add clarity, or to just try to sound smarter? If you find yourself replacing a common, approachable word, you’d better have a good reason. Speaking simply has some great benefits and can even make you sound more intelligent than using a bunch of obscure words.
First, when you speak simply, people actually listen to what you’re saying. Unless you’re speaking to a room of genetic scientists, talking like one will only get you glazed, droopy eyes. It’s impossible to keep people engaged and get your message across when they can’t understand you.
Probably the most important benefit of speaking simply is that people will talk to you. Being “approachable” means you are open to discussion. When people feel comfortable (instead of intimidated by your complex vocabulary), you have an opportunity to communicate your message. Listen to what they have to say, and learn from them.
What It Means to Be an Approachable Genius
Anyone can be an approachable genius. You don’t literally need to be a genius, and you don’t have to be naturally approachable. In fact, I’m neither of those things. You just have to be clear in your communications., speak in a way that welcomes discussion, and avoid saying anything for the sole purpose of sounding smart.
If there’s a more common word with fewer syllables that means the same thing, use it. Speaking or writing simply shows confidence and makes a very important statement: Don’t listen to me because I sound smart. Listen to me because what I’m saying has value.
The same principles apply to your marketing copy. Practically speaking, keep your copy clear and simple. Smart copy is fine, but as soon as you start throwing out big, unnecessary words, people will view them as an attempt to feign intelligence, and you will seem inauthentic. Follow these three tips for becoming an approachable genius:
1. Start small.
A good way to train yourself to be an approachable genius is to review your emails. Make it a habit to read each email before clicking “send” to see if you’re following the approachable genius principles. Can you make it shorter? Can any of the words be changed to add clarity? Is your tone accusatory or negative? If the answer to any of these is yes, make changes.
When people interact with someone who’s trying to sound intelligent, they often feel as though they are being talked at. It’s incredibly difficult to communicate with someone like that, so turn off your transmit switch and start receiving their messages. Even when you know that interrupting will shorten the conversation, let the other person talk.
3. Let it be.
This is a tough one, but it’s important. If someone is wrong, let him be wrong. As long as it’s not a critical point and there aren’t consequences for him being wrong, just leave it alone. If a person says to you, “The average number of foals in a European rhinoceros litter is 12,” just let it be. First of all, if you’re wrong, you will seem very un-genius-like. Even if you’re right, correcting others unnecessarily just makes you sound like a know-it-all.
Never forget that the purpose of communication is, obviously, to communicate. Speaking in a way that alienates your listener is counterproductive, and if you do it wrong — a lesson I learned the hard way with my “tangential” blunder — you’ll appear far less intelligent than you actually are.
So next time you sit down for a meeting, don’t say, “Let’s commence.” Say, “Let’s start.” Don’t use words like “vis-à-vis,” either, unless you’re very fond of rolled eyes. And, finally, even if you know a female rhinoceros will only give birth to one baby rhino (called a calf) every two or three years, it’s usually best to keep it to yourself.
Jack Holt is founder and CEO of MATTR.
Image credit: CC by B Rosen