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Selling your message versus "sounding smart"

Just over a year ago, HBR published one of my favourite articles ever on writing. The gist of it applies to all communication of any kind, but especially to business or academic writing:

No one trying to “sound smart” actually sounds smart.

I think many writers (myself included) have been under the impression at one time or another that in order to enter a certain realm—the realm of truly clever writers—we need to dress up or mask our ideas with a slew of ineffective tricks (see if you’re guilty of any of the following):

  • Complicated sentence structure (“It will be shown through the wide variety of evidence presented in this paper…” versus “This paper will prove that…”).

  • Unnecessary business or technical jargon (see this excellent list of "jargon fixes").

  • Three- to five-syllable words when a one-syllable word does the job (“utilize” versus “use” is probably the most common culprit here).

  • Impressive words that you think you maybe possibly read in a similar context once and plan to try out now with the wild hope that you're using them properly (never use a word if you're not 100% certain of its meaning and usage!).

In consultations, when I ask clients what they'd like to say, they can usually tell me—effortlessly. It’s only when those words hit the paper that problems arise (which is why reading your work aloud, as if in conversation, is so darn useful). But there's no reason to get caught up in sounding a certain way in your writing.

As Liane Davey emphasizes, “The best writing is so transparent that it doesn’t obscure the underlying message.”

Remember, your core message is the product that you're trying to sell your audience. How can anyone buy your product if they can't see it? For this reason, keep your non-core words (the "window dressing") simple, minimal, and clean. Don’t feel you have anything to hide or misrepresent!


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