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Why trying to “write smart” makes you sound dumb

I was in Boy Scouts as a child.

One of the troop leaders was Mr. Colby. He was an unrepentant geek.

Mr. Colby didn’t talk like a “normal” person. He’d always use five-dollar words made us kids scratch our heads.

If you asked him a “yes or no” question, he’d respond with “affirmative” or “negative.”

If you asked him where we were going on a hike, he wouldn’t say “Beaver Creek” or “Yosemite Valley.” He’d give you the exact coordinates.

One night, we had a big meal by the campfire.

After we ate, Mr. Colby leaned back in his chair. He placed his hands on his stomach and said, “My gastronomical satiety admonishes me to such an extent that I am no longer able to indulge myself beyond the limits of dietary integrity.”

Everyone just rolled their eyes.

Mr. Colby tried to sound “smart” and impressive with his big words.

Instead, he sounded like a doofus.

Companies constantly try the “Mr. Colby” approach to writing ads.

They want to sound smart. They want to impress potential clients with their oversized vocabulary.

But this almost always backfires. And the ad resoundingly fails.


I’ll explain…

The smartest person in the room is the one who speaks so EVERYONE understands him.

The average American adult reads at a 7th to 8th grade level. And studies show even people who read at higher levels prefer “plain-English” writing.

There is SO much stuff trying to grab people’s attention nowadays. They don’t want to work to read your ad. If they think they’ll have to use the slightest bit of brain power, they’ll instantly move on to something else. (Usually a cat video.)

So here are five tips for writing easy-to-understand yet powerful copy. When you follow this advice, you’ll lock readers into your ad and ensure your message resonates.

  1. Use Short Sentences

Short sentences make for easy reading. Pick up any popular mainstream novel. They’re typically written at a 7th grade level. The sentences are short and punchy. Just the way people like them.

Many magazines are also written at grade-school levels.

Take Reader’s Digest. It’s written at an 8th grade level. Here’s an excerpt from a true story in Reader’s Digest about a man lost at sea:

“It was five days before the winds finally eased. Alvarenga and Córdoba were now around 280 miles offshore. The only likely rescue was by being spotted by another boat. But that was difficult, as the craft sat low in the water. From more than a half mile away, they were virtually invisible. “We are going to die,” moaned Córdoba.”

I ran this paragraph through my Word processor’s readability tool. (I’ll tell you how to use yours in a second.) It’s written at a 6th grade level. No sentence is longer than 12 words. But boy is this entertaining writing.

I’m not saying never to write sentences longer than 12 words. But try to keep them around 20 words, max. Once you start going over that, your reader has a tough time keeping up with your ideas.

Fortunately, it’s usually easy to break a big sentence into two. Especially if the sentence contains a coordinating conjunction. (These are and, but, so, for, or, nor, and yet.)

Here’s a quick example:

A: I awoke in the middle of the night, and I was thirsty, so I went to the kitchen to pour a glass of water.

B: I awoke in the middle of the night. I was thirsty. I went to the kitchen to pour a glass of water.

You could also do…

I awoke in the middle of the night. I was thirsty, so I went to the kitchen to pour a glass of water.

Bottom line: Keep things short. Keep things straightforward.

  1. Simple Language Is Best

You don’t win prizes for using five-dollar words in advertising. So always try to use the “simplest” version of a word. Here are some examples:



  1. Contractions Are Your Friend

Your English teachers may not have like contractions. But marketing isn’t English class, so contract away

Think of it this way. You use contractions when you talk, don’t you? Don’t contractions just sound… normal? So why wouldn’t you use them in your marketing?

For fun, let’s remove the contractions from that last paragraph:

Think of it this way. You use contractions when you talk, do not you? Do not contractions just sound… normal? So why would not you use them in your marketing?

See how silly that sounds?

You do not need to contract words in every possible instance. Do it when it sounds natural. You know, how you’d actually TALK.

  1. Eliminate Filler Words

Every word takes up precious real estate in your ad… and your reader’s mind. Ruthlessly cutting unnecessary words is crucial to a concise, compelling message.

Consider the following:

  • “evidence we have” instead of “the evidence we have”
  • “consumers” instead of “the consumer”
  • That can be left out half (of) the time
  • “he said he agreed” instead of “he said that he agreed”
  • “the policy anniversary date” instead of “the anniversary date of the policy”

If your ad feels wordy, ask yourself: “What can I cut while remaining grammatically correct?”

  1. Use Action Verbs

To keep readers engaged, use action verbs. These help paint a picture in your reader’s mind.

Here are some examples:



Let’s go back to that Reader’s Digest story of the men lost at sea. Notice all of the action verbs. I’ve underlined the ones that paint a vivid mental picture.

“Alvarenga now spent entire days hunting for turtles. Córdoba, however, was disgusted by the congealed blood and ate sparingly of the meat. Alvarenga seduced his mate into eating by presenting the turtle steaks as a delicacy. He cut the meat into thin strips, dripped on salt water for flavoring, and toasted them in the sun on the outboard motor housing. Using the vertebrae of triggerfish as toothpicks, he served his meal on a turtle shell.”

When you read this, you can’t help but imagine these guys “hunting” and “cutting” and “toasting.”

Bonus Tip: Use Your Word Processor’s Readability Tool

Want to know how easy to understand your copy is? Use your word processor’s readability tool.

Here’s how to check your readability score with the latest versions of Microsoft Word:

  • Click the File tab
  • Click Options.
  • Click Proofing.
  • Ensure the “Check grammar with spelling check box” is selected.
  • Select “Show readability statistics.”
  • After you check a document’s spelling and grammar, readability statistics will now display.

For reference, here is how the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores break down:

–90.0 to 100: Easily understood by average 11-year-old students.

–60.0 to 70.0: Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.

–0.0 to 30.0: Best understood by college graduates. (Try to avoid this in your marketing!)


Bottom Line: Write how people talk.

You’ll engage the reader. They’ll hang on to your every word. And they’ll be MUCH more likely to buy from you.



P.S. For more instruction on how to write powerfully, visit the MYM blog. Type “writing” into the search bar, and—presto!—you’ve got a ton of writing resources at your fingertips.

© 2018, Rich Harshaw. All rights reserved.

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