13 arguments to try next time someone accuses you of dumbing down (and 1 you should avoid)

The most common objection my clients make to clear, concise writing is that making stuff easy to understand is dumbing down.

The question fellow writers ask me most often is “how do I persuade my clients being clear and concise isn’t dumbing down?”

Here’s what I tell them.


1. No one will ever complain that writing’s too easy to read

I’ve written for derivatives experts, lawyers, economists, Cambridge academics.

Not one of them has ever said: “Gee, I wish I’d had to concentrate more when reading that”.


2. In the words of leading junk mail writer, Andy Maslen: there’s no such thing as B2B-lish

Here’s why. Take a look at this list of just some of the things a non-business type would rather do than read your copy:

Day dream
Make a cup of tea
Play with the kids
Look at pictures of naked people
Get drunk
Flirt with a colleague
Text a mate
Boast about their fabulous life on Facebook
Watch Breaking Bad
Lose half a day to Pinterest
Lose a grand on online poker
Read something they’ve actually paid for

And here’s a list of things a busy executive would rather do:

Day dream
Make a cup of tea
Play with the kids
Look at pictures of naked people
Get drunk
Flirt with a colleague
Text a mate
Boast about their fabulous life on Facebook
Watch Breaking Bad
Lose half a day to Pinterest
Lose a grand on online poker
Read something they’ve actually paid for

Yep, you got it. Business people are no different from the rest of us. So talk to them like you’d talk to me.


3. And on that note, this – from the must-bookmark manifesto for the simple scribe

“You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, or the rather dishy person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your mother. You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson’s Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second, given a chance.”


4. People don’t do business with businesses…

… they do business with people.

Yeah, the “people don’t do business with businesses blah blah blah” thing is a total cliché, but what corporate client doesn’t love a total cliché?

Anyway, have you got the message yet that we’re all writing for human beings, not corporate robots?


5. The Economist is written for smart people, right?

Well, here’s how that venerable magazine’s style guide opens:

“The first requirement of The Economist is that it should be readily understandable. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.”


6. Just because a PC is harder to use than a Mac, doesn’t make it smarter

The opposite, in fact.

As the late, great Steve Jobs once said:

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”


7. Steve Jobs wasn’t the only genius who “got” simplicity

Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, meine Damen und Herren, I give you:

Einstein: “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Richard Feynman: “You can always recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.”

Winston Churchill: “A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life.”


8. Simplicity = truth = trust

Note how the last two geniuses in point 7 linked simplicity with truth? The connection doesn’t just apply to physics and politics, you know.

After all, what modern business doesn’t bang on incessantly about “transparency”?

If your client wants to build trust among investors/clients/employees/the general public, they have to keep their writing transparent (aka simple).

And just for contrast, take a look at this example of a writer who obscures a tricky truth with gobbledygook.


9. A copywriter’s job isn’t to make them think, it’s to make them buy

Yeah, even if you’re in employee engagement or some other field you think is non-salesy, you’re in the business of persuasion.

Everything you write should elicit some kind of action from your reader – whether it’s forking out a fiver or working in a different way.

The harder they have to sweat it to read your stuff, the less chance you’ve got of getting them to do what you want.


10. You’re alienating 10% of your readers if you don’t make it easy

If your employees/customers/investors are typical of the general population, 10% of them are dyslexic.

Actually, if they’re smarter or more “businessy” than the general population, they may be even more likely to be dyslexic. (Some famous dyslexics: Anita Roddick, Richard Branson and – yes, him again – Einstein.)

Make your writing complex and you’re making something at least 10% of your readers struggle to do even harder. That’s not just not fair, it’s also a pretty stupid way to do business. (And what would the Diversity team say?)


11. Use jargon and 74% of people will think you don’t even understand the words that are coming out of your own mouth

For this statistic and a heap of others that should help you persuade them to keep things simple, check out this infographic.


12. Bad writing = bad manners
American philosopher Brand Blanshard once said: “Persistently obscure writers will usually be found to be defective human beings”.

What he meant was that you can tell how a person treats other people by the way they treat their readers.

And someone who deliberately obscures their meaning is a bad-mannered bully who tries to humiliate others into submission (thanks to Michael Billig for introducing me to Blanshard’s ideas in his book Learn to Write Badly).


13. Psychologists have proven over and over again that simple works better than complex

There’s a thing psychologists call “cognitive fluency”, which is all about whether or not something is easy to think about.

Experiments on cognitive fluency have shown that easy to understand = more profitable, more pleasurable, more intelligent and safer.

Check out these eight studies that prove the point.


14. Don’t make the plea for “plain English”
Next time someone wants to gussy up your copy with a few “leverages”, a bit of “operationalising” or a sprinkling of “integration”, don’t harangue them about the Plain English Campaign.

“Plain” is not the same as “simple”.

A plain outfit is frumpy. A simple outfit is elegant.

And what would you rather eat? Plain food? Or simple food?

(Overcooked cabbage? Or spaghetti vongole?)

8 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Dysonology says:

    An excellent post. I particularly enjoyed the last point.

    Does beg the question though, on what to do when the client is fixated on leveraging and optimasationalising further jargonisation going forward in this space (despite your entreaties).

    Curious if you – or any readers – have an opinion on this, as it crops up more often than I’d like.

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Good question, Jack. I provided some tips in a previous post on sneaky ways to get them to say it your way, the most devious of which is to bombard them with your own writerly jargon. See here: http://www.dorisandbertie.com/goodcopybadcopy/2011/01/28/six-more-sneaky-ways-to-make-them-write-it-your-way/

  3. Robin Kilroy says:

    Really, really good article. Love it! Have re-tweeted it!

  4. Couldn’t agree more.
    But ‘plain’, in language terms, is not synonymous with ‘boring’. It means ‘clear’ and ‘direct’, which is precisely what you’ve rightly been arguing for.

  5. Tony says:

    Great article, I couldn’t agree more. Simple isn’t dumb it’s clear. We aren’t only trying to sell product with copy, were trying to take advantage of the attention we are given. People tend to skim through copy, with simple writing we take advantage of a reader who doesn’t want to spend a whole lot of time or effort to get the message were sending.


  6. Greg Jackson says:

    Excellent post Clare. I’ll definitely be using a few of these in future.

    I’ve lost count of the times a client has shuddered when I suggest re-writing corporate mumbo jumbo in simple language. Many seem stuck in the mind-set that writing clearly somehow leaves them ‘exposed’ and sounding less knowledgeable than competitors.

    Believe it or not, I once had a brief which asked for the copy to be made ‘as complicated as possible’.

  7. Clare Lynch says:

    Your anecdote about that brief is crazy! At least they were honest, I suppose. A lot of clients talk the talk about clear writing, but in the end still want to clutter up the copy with horrible corpspeak.

Leave a Reply