Help People Understand

Smart Has the Brains

“I don’t know the rules of grammar… If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.” David Ogilvy

If there’s one consistent mistake I’ve made over the years, it’s trying to be too smart.

How does “great” thought or complicated writing help anyone if they can’t understand it?

See, I believe in original thought, and want to make marketing and communications a better profession. I told Valeria Maltoni years ago that I can help businesses and nonprofits become better global citizens by improving communications.

Unless my concepts and ideas are too complicated for the general practitioner.

We all like to come off as smart people. God knows everyone wants to be respected by their peers.

It reminds me of Umberto Eco and Neal Stephenson‘s writings. I love both authors’ early works, in particular The Name of the Rose, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.

As Eco and Stephenson progressed in their careers, I sense they achieved more license with topics and editing. Their works became cumbersome and lost in eddies of thought and complicated diction. So I stopped reading them.

Tripping Over Myself

I Fall Down Stairs.  A Lot. 109/365
Image by Kungfukitten

Looking at the motives behind some past writing efforts and blog posts, I tried to come off smarter and better than the average marketer.

Mistakenly forged, these efforts usually landed with a deserved thud.

They lacked the elegant simplicity of a well-communicated idea.

You would think as a marketer, I’d get this. Sometimes the shoemaker’s children get the worst footwear of the lot.

Tissue Box
Image by ohkayeor

Much of this has to do with an old unnecessary chip on my shoulder from a craptastic childhood (pass the Kleenex, please). As time progresses, I increasingly check the primal instinct to prove myself, and show people my smarts.

There are also times when a concept just seems obvious to me, but it isn’t. My assumptions and open-ended declarations don’t help people understand.

Generally, I’m getting better at speaking plainly, but I do fall into the complicated trap still. The good news is that I’m quick to realize the error as opposed to getting frustrated.

What do you think? Do you appreciate a well-communicated idea or thick thought?


  • I’ve been thinking about this a lot since our last chat, my friend.

    • There are two schools on this, and the PR folks will tell you to be exact and precise as possible with grammatics. I’m from the advertising school of make your ideas accessible. It’s something I always try to improve on Take it for what it’s worth.

      • Indeed, and I’ve definitely noticed a trend in my own writing to become more and more accessible (for lack of a better word) while still being true to how I want to write.

        It’s the two audiences tension that so many people in this space struggle with, trying to reconcile writing for your customer/prospect (like you, I target higher-level management) and writing for your peers.

        When I was an undergraduate, one of my favorite professors reminded me that there’s a simplicity even in the world of academic writing and we should always try to capture that in everything we create.

        • I don’t care about my peers very much. If I did, I’d be gunning for the AdAge 150. My customers, well, I care quite a bit about demonstrative marketing and showing results.

  • I had a lot of talks with myself about what my voice would be when I started blogging. I found that I couldn’t really put on a voice, oddly enough. When I try to do that my ideas run away and hide, and then there’s no point in worrying about voice.

    In fact, I had this argument even before social media, back in college. I have a friend who insists on demonstrating with every sentence how smart he is. He makes sure to use words that are over-the-top or he makes references other people aren’t likely to know. I told him I didn’t really feel a need to do that. I know I’m smart, and when push comes to shove I can use my smarts. Whether or not I say “dog” or “puppy mcpupperson” or “canine” doesn’t really change that. I don’t view it as dumbing down. I view it as talking (or writing) without strategy, in a way.

    That being said, I’ve always thought your posts were elegantly written, and if I didn’t understand something it was because i needed to do more research on the topic, not because you were being obtuse :)

    • Yes, thank you. I think though when I write about something and I force you to do more research (without at least the courtesy of a link) then I have been too smart. There’s a reason why newspapers are written at a 6th-9th grade level, depending on the paper.

      This is trade talk, so I expect a little higher level of competency. Nevertheless, being mindful of the reader or writing strategically as you say matters, for them and for my success (in the long run). Great comment, Margie!

  • Maybe I am from another time in space but how I learned “new” words was by reading and looking the word up in a dictionary. I believe that books still provide that exercise but blogging somehow presupposes the lowest common denominator for language use. And, I think that is good to communicate ideas. Save elegant word usage for books.

    • LOL, I agree. Know your medium. And I do enjoy reading more complicated forms of writing for myself, sophisticated books, magazines, etc., but I cannot assume my readers have that some love.

  • I work in a different industry/profession, but in my experience I always try to end up with a finished product that’s as simple and clear as possible. One reason is that I know my writing will often be read by people for whom English is not their mother tongue and I’ve run into problems in the past with misinterpretation with jargon and North American sayings.

  • I’m with you on appreciating/valuing effective communicators. I work primarily in education and we can be jargon-heavy and we love our acronyms and education-ese. I frequently need to rewrite something so that we don’t confuse our parents, students, and tax-paying community. This also reminds me of when I’ve succumbed to the allure of design and wanting make things look phenomenal instead of hammering on the best possible copy. I have to remind myself, we are here to communicate not decorate.

    • It can be hard to remember that eloquence also comes with simplicity. How do we do both? An even deeper challenge!
      I so agree on acronyms. Any text that over-relies on abbreviation and acronyms is doomed, IMO.

  • Craptastic<– proper or not, I'm stealing it. You are so right with your message, and I think it's why 'rant posts' do so well… when you're fired up authentically, you're not 'trying to sound' like anything. Just ask Sam Fiorella, the king of rants:)

    • LOL, but you know something? I usually regret pressing send on rant posts even if they do get a ton of attention. They are counter-productive 90% of the time. Venting rarely changes direction, rather it polarizes.

      • I TRY to Rant first, and then take a 24 hour cooling off period to go back and edit. Ranting for the sake of ranting, not good. But a clearly focused rant about a real issue can be superb.

      • Obviously, you’ve struck a nerve with this one!

  • I love this! I need to make it my discipline to go back and remove all the hyperbole and fluff from my posts. When I do it I think they really work
    But I dont do it way too much!
    Glad to have found your blog Geoff

  • I am totally a person in love with ideas, but sometimes they are complex. I see blogging as a way to get feedback. Everytime I publish something in my head I get feedback in the comments. If people don’t get it, then I try to re-write or break down the concept. It can be a teaching tool..

    I really like that Olgivy quot

  • I am a person in love with ideas, but sometimes they are complex. I see blogging as a way to get feedback. Every time I publish something I get another chance to express my thoughts. I get feedback in the comments. If people don’t get it, I try to re-write or break down the concept. It is a teaching tool..

    I dig that Olgivy quote. I am probably the only copywriter in the world that hasn’t read his book Confessions of an Advertising Man.

    • Oh man, that Ogilvy book shaped my entire career! You have to read it!!!
      Yes, I agree blogs are a teaching tool, and I really came to this conclusion based on hit or misses of posts I thought were brilliant! Thank you for commenting!

  • I thought Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon was one of the best things I ever read. But I see your point. :-)

    And as for your overall point, it’s outstanding. The writing has to be for the reader, or it won’t get read.

    For a while I thought I had to pack 25+ years of career wisdom into each post, instead of making one point simply and in an engaging way. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.

    • Cryptonomicon was great! It was long, but good. I laughed my ass off hysterically through a couple of scenes in that!

      Thanks, Barret on the point. I don’t know what’s wrong with me sometimes when it comes to this stuff. It should ALWAYS be about the customer/reader. I think experience shows itself through accessibility now. Glad to see I wasn’t the only one doing this!

  • Man, words to live by! My father is one of the smartest people I know (Bob Bailey, NPower, Google him). I have him edit all of my blog posts (if I ask him nicely). Inevitably he takes about 30-40% of the words I use (those fancy phrases I am so proud of) out. Kills them dead! And the resulting post is 1,000% better.

    • Looks like your Dad is a player! Liked his blog. I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree! And yes, an easily read and understood post is always 1000% better. Thanks for the comment.

      • It’s hard for me to use the words player and dad in the same sentence but he will certainly like the compliment.

  • Geoff, I don’t comment very often but I always enjoy your posts. Today I felt compelled to let you know that not only did I enjoy this post but it made me think about my own writing and how I can improve it for a wider audience. Thanks!

  • I struggle to minimize complexity and maximize clarity in my writing due, in equal parts, to being the smartest guy in the room (just ask me) and a to profound sense of insecurity/fear of failure. While I know I know it all, I also harbor the fear that well, maybe I actually don’t. So, when in doubt I inflate. Thanks for the reminder to look beyond ones self and to the reader.

  • Geoff – This is something that I struggle with also. I have been taught to write what I want and then edit out around half of the words. At first I thought it impossible. Until I tried. And you know what? It worked.

    As you mentioned, communicating and idea as simply as possible is elegantly simple.

    You want to reach the broadest audience? Speak in their language, not yours.


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