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Write Simply So Learners Trust Your Content

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Wed Feb 04 2015

Write Simply So Learners Trust Your Content
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  • The puffer fish is a slow swimmer in a sea of bigger, faster predators. When chased by a large, hungry fish, a puffer rapidly inflates its stomach. This doubles its size and makes its spines stick out. The display warns off most all but the most determined hunters. Any creature that does try a bite will find it hard to close its jaws around a tough-skinned, spiny sphere. 

    Inflation works for the puffer fish. Writers of learning content often assume this approach will work for them too. They can be tempted to use big words or convoluted sentence structures to make their ideas seem more important. 

    Another temptation is to rely on technical terminology, instead of finding language that is precise but simple enough for novices to understand. Writers might think that scattering technical terms freely will make them—and their lessons—look more credible to readers. However, the effect is likely to be just the opposite. 

    A 2006 study by Daniel Oppenheimer found that the more writers inflated their language, the less likely they were to be seen as trustworthy and intelligent. 

    Judge for yourself. Here are two acceptance speeches. Which writer seems more credible? Which is more intelligent? 

  • Writer 1: “Formal studies conducted under controlled conditions have led to the inescapable conclusion that composers of written materials who avoid proliferation of words, needless digressions, and polysyllabic words are perceived to be more intelligent than writers who indulge in prolixity and eschew concision. So I wish to express my gratitude for your recognition of my research endeavors.”

  • Writer 2: “My research shows that conciseness is interpreted as intelligence. So thank you.” 

The second example is Daniel Oppenheimer’s acceptance speech for the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature. The Ig Nobels, awarded by Annals of Improbable Research, recognize research that first makes people laugh and then makes them think. 

Oppenheimer hopes his results will help writers avoid inflated language. “I think it’s important to point out that this study is not about problems with using long words, it’s about problems with using long words needlessly.” He advises, “If the best way to say something involves using a complex word, then by all means do so. But if there are several equally valid ways of expressing your ideas, you should go with the simpler one.” 

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Implications for Training 

First, “the best way to say something” depends on your audience. For experts, technical language is quicker and more precise than everyday speech. For novices, technical terms are bafflegab, both incomprehensible and intimidating. 

Second, you don’t have to avoid technical terms. Instead, adapt your language to your audience. 

Here are a few tips to follow: 

  • When you’re writing for experts, use technical terms freely.

  • When writing for novices, use technical terms when you need to be precise; just take care to define them in context. For clarity, you may also need to address common misunderstandings of a term or provide examples or explanations to help readers understand its applications.

  • For a mixed audience, use technical terms with definitions in context; move any extended explanations or illustrations to a glossary; keep surrounding sentences short (ideally, fewer than 20 words and no more than 40). 

If you find yourself using needlessly inflated language, how can you simplify it? Two online tools can help. Take the Writer’s Diet Test at or get suggestions for shortening your sentences from this online readability checker.  

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Resources 

Oppenheimer’s Acceptance Speech: “The Ig Nobel Winners’ Circle,” Nature, October 12, 2006, p. 617. 

  • Oppenheimer’s Ig Nobel-Winning Paper: “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20(2): 139–156. 

  • Oppenheimer’s Comment on results: Jody Bruner’s July 25, 2009 blog post, “How to Impress Your Boss.”

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