Anyone else seen the meme with a book called Hypothetical Arguments I’ve Won in the Shower? We’ve all been there. Replaying arguments in our head (or in the shower) that didn’t go so well, and actually winning this time! What’s the difference? You were talking to yourself so it all made perfect sense.
This is what the power of simple language is all about. When something makes perfect sense, it’s almost impossible to disagree with.
And now I’m going to make an argument that’s impossible to disagree with about why you should use simple language, in five stunning examples.
Hemingway was famously concise with his word count, and it made him one of the most famous writers of all time. His story in six words rings a bell here – ‘For Sale: baby shoes, never worn’. That’s it.
By getting the whole story across in one line, it feels bleak and empty, yet powerful and profound. All of which puts you in the mindset of the parents. It’s brilliant.
His four rules for writing well are:
Follow these rules and your writing will be gloriously simple, and you’ll get the point across, which is the most important thing.
The argument is: simple words can elicit powerful emotion.
Way before Hemingway got in there with his pearls of wisdom, Aristotle said, “To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man”.
The key here is audience. He’s saying, express yourself like your audience would. Writing with simple language isn’t just about using ‘try’ instead of ‘endeavour’ and ‘cheap’ rather than ‘inexpensive’, you’ve got to use words that are relevant to your audience. You wouldn’t speak to a child in the same way you speak to your colleague. If you’re writing for the stakeholders in a law firm, for example, they will understand some terms that Joe Bloggs wouldn’t, and that’s fine. Use them, just don’t overdo it.
Heinz has mastered Aristotle’s trick with a recent campaign. Inspired by Don Draper in Mad Men who suggested the idea (albeit in a fictional series), Heinz has released billboards with a picture of some food, like chips and burgers, with the tagline ‘pass the Heinz’. The reason it makes you smile is because you get it – most people would reach for ketchup moments after getting their hands on the food. It’s clever (aka, wise), but it’s unpretentious.
The argument is: simple words can persuade.
Speeches are supposed to be powerful. And we think the ones that work are the ones that use simple language everyone can understand. Michelle Obama did this brilliantly in her speech to the students at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School. I could just copy and paste all of it here, but this one line sums up the vibe of the speech,
“and most of all, when you eventually get to a place like Oxford, I want every last one of you to reach back and to help others get here, too”.
She really takes a leaf out of Aristotle’s book here, using the right words for her audience to put her wisdom across.
The argument is: simple words can inspire.
When you think of famous quotes from books (it’s something us writers do for fun), the ones you remember will probably be the ones that use simple language.
Look at Shakespeare, even people who hated studying him at school will know and understand the lines, “to be, or not to be: that is the question”. Why? Because it’s easy to get and quick to say. Another great example is this line from Jane Eyre, “do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?”. We hear you, Jane. And then there’s this one from Alice in Wonderland, “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was different then”.
It doesn’t matter which decade or even century these were written in, you can still enjoy them now because they use simple language.
The argument is: simple words can transcend time.
A few poets have bucked the trend for being overly embellished with their language and it has made them very successful. Look at Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. It’s a simple story that sums up how life pans out. The metaphor is teased out in a way that’s easy to understand. It does away with fussy language, loads of adjectives and long-winded metaphors that you lose track of. Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes also spring to mind – they make it easy for the reader to follow the story within their poems, making them all the more impactful. And they’re all celebrated poets.
The argument is: simple words can lead to big success
To borrow a few words, “one day, I will find the right words and they will be simple”. Thank you, Jack Kerouac. Given that this pretty much says it all, I might as well have just written that at the start and skipped the rest. Hemingway would have loved me for it.