The Secret To Sounding Smart? Using Simple Language

Put down the thesaurus: Using big words actually makes you appear less capable.

The Secret To Sounding Smart? Using Simple Language
[Photo: Flickr user Trevor]

It might sound counterintuitive, but using four-syllable textbook words to demonstrate your smarts will actually make you appear less capable.


“So often, our intuitions about what will impress others are wrong,” says Daniel M. Oppenheimer, professor of psychology at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. He led a series of studies on how the use of language can make one appear more or less intelligent.

In one study, the researchers took essays from online college admissions essays and replaced words using an algorithm to replace shorter words with longer words and asked participants to evaluate the quality of the author. Surprisingly, participants rated the authors as less capable and less confident. Concerned that the replacement strategy used made the essays worse, the researchers took sociology dissertation abstracts, which tend to be dense in long words, and replaced the longer words with shorter words. Participants judged the authors as more capable and intelligent if they were reading shorter words.

Oppenheimer followed up this research with other investigations into the impact of language on human behavior. In his research on stock names and prices, he found stocks with harder-to-pronounce names made people less likely to purchase. In his book Democracy Despite Itself, Oppenheimer points out that a politician with a harder-to-pronounce name can be disadvantaged in the polls, because it’s harder to pronounce their name.

The reason for this phenomenon, Oppenheimer explains, is that the ease of processing information is strongly associated with positive qualities such as confidence, intelligence, and capability. “To the extent that you use long words, you make it more disfluent to read your prose, people will judge you disfavorably,” says Oppenheimer.


Word Choice Impacts How We’re Perceived By Others

The ease of processing information is strongly associated with positive qualities, including likability and intelligence. While some leaders and managers may think that using a lot of long, complex words will make them appear more impressive–“if I’m using such complex language, I must be really smart”–the opposite is true.

Strive For Clarity For Best Results

Using vocabulary where the audience is going to struggle to process or have to stop to think about the meaning is more likely to result in frustration and misinterpretation. “If your employees struggle to understand
what you’re saying, your policies and your communications to them are less effective,” says Oppenheimer.

Sending out a new policy marred with complex vocabulary is a surefire way to ensure that the policy won’t be followed. “If your communications are clear, people will evaluate the communications and the person who created those communications more positively,” says Oppenheimer.

Using Short Words Isn’t Always Right

There are times when a long word is the right word that has the right nuances to get across your argument effectively. In that case, Oppenheimer says you should go ahead and use it. The problem is when people use long words because they think they will make themselves sound smarter, a strategy Oppenheimer says will no doubt backfire. “You should use use instead of utilizing utilize,” he says.

About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction.