When you talk, you want to do it well. Whether you’re speaking to an audience of hundreds, or teaching a class, or just having a one-on-one conversation, you want to be heard and you want your words to carry the most meaning possible. One of the biggest barriers to this is trying to sound smart.
Trying to sound smart may sound like a good idea, but it’s not. I realized this fact slowly.
When I was in high school I earned a little extra money from time to time writing papers for other students. It wasn’t exactly cheating, but it was a bit of a shady business. I had three things going for me when it came to this side business: a computer (with a printer), an ability to make up stuff that sounded legit (some might refer this as “the ability to BS”), and a way with words.
My “way with words” was not complicated: I tried to sound smart. I learned early in my public school education that teachers graded as much on the words you used than on what you said with those words. So I created long sentences composed of S.A.T. vocabulary words that would impress the teacher and earn an A, (or, if writing for an obviously less eloquent fellow student I would dumb it down a bit and go for a C). Sounding smart resulted in good grades, but very little learning.
It wasn’t until a class at Duke that someone called my bluff. The first paper I wrote for American Church History class came back with a B and a curt note that read, “Stop trying to sound smart and just say it.” The professor for that class was a brilliant and personable man with a Harvard PhD who could say more with five syllables than most of us could communicate in five minutes. His class gave me permission to write and speak plainly and powerfully.
I heard a similar lesson a few years ago while listening to an interview with the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who’s written a biography on Winston Churchill. When asked what made Churchill such a great communicator, Johnson pointed to the simple beauty of Churchill’s vocabulary. For example, while Churchill could certainly spin out long-winded, meandering sentences full of complexity, when he wanted to get his point across he would use “short, Anglo-Saxon zingers.”
Opting for Anglo-Saxon words over Latinate words proved to be a powerful approach in many of Churchill’s most remembered speeches. For instance, consider this passage: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Only one word, “surrender”, is of Latinate origin.
Why is that passage so powerful, so memorable, so good? Because in it Churchill does what good communicators always do: he spoke with the audience in mind and not in order to impress. In other words, he wasn’t trying to sound smart, he was saying it plainly and rather poetically.
If you want to communicate well, stop trying to sound smart. The only people who need to sound smart are people trying to impress other people who are also trying to sound smart. Scholars do this when they write to other scholars. But the best preachers, teachers, writers and even poets choose their words not to sound smart, but to provide something of value to anyone who will listen.
The people who find it most challenging to communicate plainly are the people who really are smart. A high intellect means you’ve likely built up a larger-than-average vocabulary and you’re able to think in complex, multi-layered, lengthy streams of thought. That’s nice, but all those big words and tangled thoughts have to get translated in such a way that other people can understand what the heck you’re trying to say. Churchill was a brilliant man and he worked hard to speak and write so that people could not just understand what he was saying, but be changed as a result.
If you find it challenging to dial down your intellect so others can understand what you’re saying, start by trying to practice these three habits of speech.
1) Use simple words in simple sentences. For some, this is somewhat like learning a foreign language. Simplicity doesn’t come naturally or easily for many people, especially those who truly are smart. But if you’re that smart, then you can figure this out. For starters, try using more one and two-syllable words and fewer prefixed, suffixed, and compounded words. For example, “next to last” communicates the exact same thing as “penultimate” using one less syllable.
2) Tell stories. Long before people wrote things down, they told stories and recited poems. These forms of communication are more memorable and connect more deeply. Because smart people can hold onto thoughts and ideas more easily than the average person, they tend to rely less on story or poetry to help tie things together. They tend to spout out disconnected sentences that have no real flow or movement. If you want to improve your writing and speaking, try hanging your sentences to a big idea, thinking in terms of start-to-end (story), or using poetic devices when communicating long thoughts; your readers and listeners will thank you.
3) Touch emotion. When you sound too smart people tune you out. Using too much smart talk you might reach their intellect, but miss their emotion. Emotion makes us care about what the other person is saying; it’s like the gatekeeper who lets in the important stuff while filtering out the noise. Touching emotion doesn’t require sappiness or bringing someone to tears, it just means connecting to what’s important for the other person. Unless you’re talking to fellow Vulcans, you need more than logic in your language.
One final point: “Stop trying to sound smart” isn’t the same thing as sounding dumb or saying dumb things. Using simple words and sentences equals simplicity, not being simplistic. You can speak the truth plainly, but you can also lie plainly. Donald Trump’s success stems in large part from his ability to speak simply, but he tends to say dumb things well. Trump also tends to use simple, effective speech to talk about himself and say rather troubling things. On the other hand, Churchill said smart things well. Be like Churchill.