Clarity: the Key to Perceived Truth in Business Writing

by Mary Cullen on Fri, Jul 22, 2011

Worrisome new research out of New York University and the University of Basel business writing jargon resized 600indicates that imprecise business writing and jargon isn't merely annoying and meaningless. They can also be perceived as lying to certain readers.

The study shows that when you want to feel believable and trustworthy, concrete language works well. Jargon was most highly mistrusted.

Psyblog explored this study more in specific sentence tests. Compare these two sentences:

  1. Hamburg is the European record holder concerning the number of bridges.
  2. In Hamburg, one can count the highest number of bridges in Europe.

Although these two sentences seem to have exactly the same meaning, people rate the second as more true than the first. It's not because there is more detail in the second—there isn't. It's because it conjures a simple, unambiguous, and compelling image: you counting bridges.

As PsyBlog explains, there are several reasons easy-to-picture language equals believable language:

  • Our minds process concrete statements more quickly, and we automatically associate quick and easy with true.
  • We can create mental pictures of concrete statements more easily. When something is easier to picture, it’s easier to recall, so seems more true.
  • Also, when something is more easily pictured it seems more plausible, so it is more readily believed.

Abstract words are handy for talking conceptually but they are vague. Concrete words refer to something easily imagined in the real world, and they refer to it precisely. "Write faster" is specific while "benefit from better writing" could refer to anything.

If you want to be perceived as honest, use concrete words that are easy to visualize, and absolutely avoid jargon.

Resources

Unsuck It - A jargon phrase checker. Paste in your jargon phrase, and the tool will either correct it for you, or suggest other terms to avoid. Warning: the language shaping the tool is crude, but the tool is very accurate (and funny).

Gobbledygook Grader - [Update Gobbledygook Grader has been shut down] Paste full documents into this tool, and it will find all overused, jargon phrases for you.

Most recent list of reader-voted business writing jargon to avoid for 2011, with substitutions.

Writing simply, and with visual and language clarity, is much harder than overwriting. Be sure your editing time includes removing jargon, choosing evocative verbs and nouns, and eliminating fluff. Your documents will be understood, appreciated, and you will be perceived as both smart and truthful. 

Download Clarity in Business Writing Guide

Topics: Business Writing Style

Mary Cullen

About the author

Mary Cullen

Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A in English from the University of Rhode Island, a M.A in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.

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