How do you nail a 'sophisticated' tone of voice?

Cartoon of a dictionary and a grammar book

Recently, one of my students asked a really great question. It's on a topic many people wonder about - how to strike the balance between simplicity and sophistication.

Here’s her question:

Hi Clare

I'm really enjoying the course, but just a quick question.

Regarding choosing simpler language (i.e shorter words, anglo-saxon speak), what happens when you need to still write a sophisticated tone?

Any suggestions for writing "simple" but also creating a sophisticated, intelligent tone?

Thank you for any advice or feedback!

And here’s my response:

Great question! Striking the right tone of voice can be one of the trickiest things to get right.

When it comes to word choice, it’s all about knowing the difference between unavoidable technical language and jargon. A great example is the word ‘leverage’.

In the financial industry, this word has a very specific meaning: the use of debt to increase your profits.

However, it’s also become one of those horrible jargon words some business people use to try and sound sophisticated (‘leveraging our competencies/synergies/scale’ etc).

The words you choose will depend on your reader, but even with a sophisticated readership, it’s better to err on the side of simplicity. And remember, keeping things simple is not the same as dumbing down. The opposite in fact!

Consider, for example, those two intelligent yet easy-to-read publications, the FT and The Economist. Both are aimed at a sophisticated readership, but neither uses jargon and they will often take the time to provide a definition of technical terms.

Indeed, the latter's style guide opens with these words:

"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.”

As professional writers, it is often our job to do the thinking for others. I spend a large part of my day helping clients articulate who they want to reach with their words, what they want to achieve by writing them, and why the target audience should care about what they want to say.

Once we've got clarity of thought on these things, the words come easily.

In a nutshell, it’s important to remember that simplicity can be just as intelligent and sophisticated as complexity - if not more so.

Nothing is more beautiful than a complex idea expressed simply (and nothing uglier than a simple idea dressed up in complex language).

And, in fact, experiments have shown that using complex language can actually make you appear less intelligent.

For more reasons to keep things simple, do check out 13 arguments to try next time someone accuses you of dumbing down (and 1 you should avoid).