With more than 10 years in PR and communications, I have drafted and edited countless speeches as a speechwriter and countless media releases as a communications manager and contractor. So I write this from extensive experience.
The power of words is seldom fully felt, until after they are spoken, or read. The words we use can influence outcomes in organisations and governments. They can change the way people see the world and each other. They can be as sharp as a sword and as soft as a feather. They can divide or unite people. They can start wars in families and nations and around the world. They can bring peace back to the table and soften hearts. That is the powerful impact of words and that is why our word choices are so important.
In this post, I focus on the power of simple words. Factors like how it’s said, as much as who is saying it, and levels of trustworthiness with the intended audience are also important considerations.
A simple motive, word, idea can be powerful. Using plain language can be a potent device in well-written and carefully crafted oratory and media releases.
When it comes to word choices, I prefer a simple everyday word for speeches and media releases, rather than a fancy word or jargon that my audience hasn’t heard of. Why? Because you want to increase the chances of people understanding and accepting your message. Using jargon, particularly in a business and political setting, limits the pool of people who will understand what you’re talking about. (There are public examples, which I won’t go into here, where limiting people’s understanding of the issue is clearly the communications goal of the speaker. But that’s a post for another topic.)
Back to the power of plain language. Applying simple words as a deliberate choice helps to communicate clearly and concisely to people of all walks of life. It is an important lesson to grasp if you want your message to be heard and understood widely, across all levels of society including those with low levels of literacy in reading and writing, not just those who are well educated.
With large populations of people born overseas, it’s also important to consider the communications needs of people who have varying levels of English fluency, particularly if they are part of the target markets or audiences you want to reach out to.
When I have written public health communications for doctors and scientists, I focus on how to explain highly technical and often complex issues in ways that the general public will easily relate to. One way: instead of long academic sentences with plenty of jargon familiar only to scientists and specialist doctors, I take the scientific word or term and introduce a description and explanation and its relevance alongside the word or term, to help journalists and the public understand the message. That gives journalists, easy-to-understand, information they need to explain a complex issue to the public.
Because you cannot effectively communicate and persuade groups of people and communities, including those with English as a second language, to take protective actions to limit the spread of disease during an outbreak, for example, if the message is not plainly given. Only medical and scientific professionals will understand the associated jargon but they’re not the key audiences you need to reach through the media during an outbreak. Therefore, to help people understand the risks, and take the necessary actions, keep it simple, clear and concise.
Use words to express yourself, not to impress. The latter doesn’t consider the audience’s needs. Focusing on the needs of the audience is the key to successful and influential communications.
What if you, regardless of my advice here, still want to use ‘big’ words that are highly academic or jargon? Unless you take the time to explain the word or term to your audience, describe how it applies and why it’s relevant to them, as I explained earlier in the health example, it often alienates listeners.
When you alienate listeners, you lose an opportunity to influence.
You see, if people don’t understand what you’ve said, they will stop listening, and be less likely to listen next time. Unless they trust you implicitly which means that one off speech, that didn’t make sense, may be forgiveable. But if you are new to an audience and trust is still up in the air, it’s far easier for people to stop listening, than to draw public attention to the fact that one did not understand the speaker’s message.
The power of simple words. It works.
An animated version of a lesson in simple words by TED animators.