Words matter

3 ways word choices hinder effective communication

Whether in a professional or social setting, effective communication demands we show respect for our audience while we inform, instruct or entertain them. To do that we must choose our words wisely. That means choosing words that do not confuse, alienate or annoy your audience. Yet every day, we hear or see people losing their audience because they made poor word choices in one or all of the following ways.

1. Using big words when small ones will do. 

(The fancy-word people call that altiloquence.) Proposals, web content and presentations are often riddled with the verb utilize when we mean use. Who decided to use such a passive term as utilize when use is so much shorter and active? Another example is “we will endeavor to…” How about “we will try to…”? It’s simpler, clearer and certainly less pretentious.

This post on socialtriggers.com explains why big words make you look stupid. Before you think it’s outdated, the same subject came up on thehrdigest.com in 2018: How to Sound Smart Without Using Fancy Pants Words. There are dozens more out there. And these aren’t just opinion. Several of them reference research conducted at Princeton University, the results of which were published with what is, hopefully, an intentionally ironic title, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.”

As communicators, we all like to drop an occasional vocabulary grenade in a conversation, but we should be aware we’re doing it and anticipate getting busted.

Using big, fancy words can torpedo a conversation because the word is too big, not quite the right word or a malapropism. How often do we say dialect when we mean accent? Or how about that time the team’s effort was described as duplicitous when she meant to say duplicative? Redundant would have sufficed.

2. Over-using jargon.

Technical terms are accepted and expected when talking in technical circles, and you know what you’re talking about. Jargon is not acceptable, ever. It is at best a conversational crutch, and most likely subterfuge for incompetence.

This problem is not exclusive to the marketing industry. Jargon is rampant in business, academia, social settings and, yes, coffee shops. Jargon, while enabling the speaker to feel more confident, actually telegraphs a shallow knowledge. Classic example: the barista giving the elderly gentleman the stink-eye when he orders a large coffee instead of a venti black coffee with room.

3. Abusing acronyms.

You may think you are showing insider knowledge when you liberally sprinkle acronyms in your presentation. But whether you’ve first defined them or not, using acronyms, just like big words, disrupts your audience’s attention. Listeners stop listening as they try to remember or discreetly Google what the acronym stands for.

In fact, more than a decade ago, the AP Style Guide started telling us only to use acronyms that are commonly understood, such as AP, DNA, FBI, UFO or USDA. Even then, use them sparingly. Some lesser known acronyms may be acceptable when communicating within a specific profession, however. For example, when communicating with veterinarians, you won’t need to spell out acronyms like AVMA, FIV, PRRS or TID.

The point is this: We’re all guilty of these mistakes at times, but you have the power to stop letting your word choice get in the way of effectively connecting and communicating with your audience. The consequences of over-using big words, jargon and acronyms can be avoided with greater respect for your audience and more intentional curation of your words.

Words matter. Choose them wisely. Effective communications depend on it.


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