Academic papers aren’t renowned for their readability. The titles are no better; they’re often dense with jargon. However, there are notable exceptions.
For example, the JK Rowling-inspired paper, ‘Fantastic yeasts and where to find them: The hidden diversity of dimorphic fungal pathogens’ by Marley Van Dyke, appeared in the journal Current Opinion in Microbiology in 2019.
Or a paper written by Erika Carlson in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology from 2011: ‘You probably think this paper’s about you: Narcissists’ perceptions of their personality and reputation’.
There’s even a 2017 paper in the American Journal on Addictions by Heather Oxentine, ‘Medical Marijuana: Can’t we all just get a bong?’.
But our favourite is ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity’, or, as the subtitle goes on to explain, ‘Problems with using long words needlessly’. This paper is by the Princeton psychologist, Daniel Oppenheimer. But unlike the discussion of dimorphic fungal pathogens, this research should interest marketers.
Write to express, not to impress
Oppenheimer argues that we tend to evaluate an individual’s competence based on the language they use. Just not in the ways we might expect.
In 2005, he asked participants to read samples of text including graduate school applications, sociology dissertation abstracts and translations of a work of Descartes. Some participants read the original versions, written in a verbose, jargon-filled style, while others were given edited versions, with unnecessarily complex words switched for simpler alternatives.
Finally, the psychologist asked the participants to rate the intelligence of the authors. Those who read the simplified versions rated the author as +10% more intelligent than those who read the more complex, original text.
If you want to be remembered, make your claims as concrete as possible.
Many marketers – especially those targeting professionals – labour under the assumption that they need to use complex terminology to gain status. But the results are clear. If you want to impress a customer – or a colleague – then step away from the thesaurus.
That’s not the only advantage to this style of communication. Simple language tends to be concrete, rather than abstract, and that boosts memorability.
The doctrine behind the efficacious use of intelligible and imaginable phraseology: Why you should use concrete terms
Ian Begg, from the University of Western Ontario, was the first psychologist to study the impact of using concrete language. In 1972, he created a simple experiment that started with him reading out 20 two-word phrases to listeners. Some phrases were concrete, like ‘white horse’ or ‘rusty engine’, whereas others were abstract, like ‘basic theory’ or ‘apparent fact’. You can see the full list of words below.
Afterwards, Begg asked the participants to recall as much as they could. The results were conclusive. Overall, people remembered 9% of the abstract words and 36% of the concrete words.
The reason for this step-change in memorability isn’t certain, but Begg speculates that it’s because when we hear a concrete phrase we unthinkingly visualise it. That makes concrete terms sticky. In contrast, abstract words conjure up no mental picture and therefore slip quickly from our memory.
But it’s the scale of the change in memorability that is most striking. Begg’s experiment showed nearly a four-fold difference in recall. That should give us all pause for thought – what other small, costless changes can you make that can have that kind of impact?
It also explains why the blogger Bob Hoffmann has gone as far as to say the two most important words in advertising are “Be specific”.
These findings are relevant now as ads increasingly veer towards abstract language. Whether it’s purpose, provenance or promises of exceptional quality, many ad claims are couched in generalisations.
That’s a mistake. If you want to be remembered, make your claims as concrete as possible.
Will Hanmer-Lloyd is head of strategy at Total Media.