Ever replayed a lost argument in the shower? You’ll suddenly come up with the ultimate response, just a few hours too late.
Don’t beat yourself up, though. Punchy, short statements that distil the essence of your thoughts are deceptively tricky. It takes time to master stripping away excessive description and saying exactly what you mean.
So how can simple language make your content effective and impactful?
Strip it back
Ernest Hemingway was famously concise with his language. The best example of this is his shortest short story – ‘For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ The stark language conveys the bleak, empty feeling of losing a child perfectly. It’s brilliant.
His four rules for writing well are:
- Use short sentences
- Use short first paragraphs
- Use vigorous English (this means do your homework and write with passion)
- Be positive, not negative – say what it is, not what it isn’t
Follow these rules and you’ll find your writing conveys emotion with perfectly concise clarity.
Wise old owl
Way before Hemingway, Aristotle said, “To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man”.
Tailor your language to your audience. If you’re writing a blog post for a young fashion brand, don’t alienate the reader with complex language. You can whip out the fancy words in, say, an annual report for a law firm, but there’s no need to overdo it. Just because your audience can understand you doesn’t mean they won’t be put off by ostentatious word choices.
Heinz displayed how effective this can be. Inspired by fictional ad aficionado Don Draper’s proposal in Mad Men, Heinz has released billboards that simply have a meal and the tagline ‘pass the Heinz’. It mirrors many of our meal times, is easy to understand and totally unpretentious. Great work, Heinz.
Speeches need to be powerful. And the most effective utilise universally understood language for maximum impact.
Michelle Obama nailed this when she spoke to the students at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School. 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”.
Aristotle would be proud. Michelle inspired her audience and imparted wisdom with enviably economical language.
Back to the future
The most famous quotes from literature are often simple yet capture something profound. Take Shakespeare. Love him or hate him, most of us know Hamlet’s famous dilemma.
“to be or not to be: that is the question.”
Should the tortured prince live or die? The weight of the question is hammered home by the stark, simple language. And without Shakespeare’s signature verbosity, it’s stayed in the hearts and minds of people even centuries later. Simple words can transcend time.
Poetry without the flowery
A few popular poets have bucked the trend for being overly embellished with their language. Look at Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. The metaphor for life is teased out in a simple, enjoyable way that isn’t weighed down by fussy language.
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.
A final thought…
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.
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