Keep It Simple. Really
When I was browsing through "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly" by Daniel M. Oppenheimer, formerly Princeton University, where the research was done, and currently of UCLA, I thought the title was a joke.
A paper on the power of using simple language couldn't really have such a windy title. Could it?
But never underestimate what Bob Dylan called "a self-ordained professor's tongue too serious to fool." The description of the study was as serious as myocardial infarction. So while it was a hoot to read, what Oppenheimer discovered is worth knowing.
The first of his several experiments aimed to see whether readers thought people who used long words were smarter than those who used short words. So he had his study participants read six personal statements written by applicants to grad school.
All the subjects read the same six essays, but for one group, "A 'highly complex' version of each excerpt was prepared by replacing every noun, verb and adjective with its longest entry in the Microsoft Word 2000 thesaurus." (Why highly complex is in quotes beats me. For more fun on that subject, see unnecessaryquotes.com).
The results of the test were described in the equation, F(2, 68).4.46, pRene Descartes Meditation IV" were sought until two renditions of comparable word counts, but contrasting complexity were found."
The research subjects were all grad students and knew who Descartes was. Yet those who read the simpler translation even thought Descartes was smarter than those who read the complex translation.
The third experiment tested and proved the validity of the, "algorithmic approach to word replacement" used in the first two. I won't go into the details because I don't understand them.
But then, just as I was starting to get sleepy, things got interesting. In the fourth experiment, Oppenheimer wanted to show that "any manipulation that substantially reduces fluency" would lower the reader's view of the writer's intelligence.
Participants were given an excerpt from a different personal essay. Everyone read the same excerpt, except this time half the essays were printed in standard Times Roman font and half were printed in italicized Juice ITC. Both fonts were 12 point.
The result? When the same text was written in a different font, one that was more difficult to read, the same thing happened — readers rated the author as less intelligent than the simple font.
That's not all. In post-experiment interviews, participants readily attributed the font selection to the experimenter, not the author. Yet they still judged the author whose essay was printed in Juice ITC as less intelligent.
As secure fundraisers, we may not be worried about how smart the reader thinks we are. But whether she thinks the letter signer is intelligent matters a lot.
Second, and just as important, the study is a clear indicator that anything that makes the reader's job harder, no matter how insignificant it might seem, is a turn-off.
The study's subjects read all the essays in their entirety because they had to. Your readers and mine have no obligation to read any of our package. If their job becomes even a little bit difficult, the package is toast.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.