Shorter words usually work better

“Long words are not necessarily good words.”

Long and Short Pencils on White Background

This piece of wisdom comes from Commercial Correspondence, a book by Ralph S. Butler and Henry A. Burd originally published in 1923.

Ninety-three years later, copywriters and public relations pros are still trying to get this message across to their clients and managers.

According to Butler and Burd, the origin of most long words is Latin and Norman-French, languages historically used by the learned and the nobility. Shorter words come from the simpler Anglo-Saxon language of the common people. A larger number of people needed to understand what a law meant, for example, or how to make an accurate measurement, so the words used had to familiar.

The same is true almost a century later – and it will be true a century from now.

While the authors acknowledged that long words are “just as good English” as the short ones, they stressed that the effectiveness of words can’t be discounted.

Business English is effective English. It makes people do things. There are a great many good English words that are not effective in business. Long words of Latin origin are usually in this class.

We know this intuitively. Here’s proof: When your managers or clients want to sound formal, extremely knowledgeable or highly educated, what do they do? They use longer words. “Communication” instead of “letter.” “Organization” instead of “company.” “Ideation” instead of “ideas.” “Core competencies” instead of “strengths.”

I know it’s tough to persuade such managers/clients to simplify their language. How have you done it? Have you tried sharing the possible consequences of an audience taking action based on a misunderstanding?




Whose language does your marketing speak?

Marketing should speak to, rather than at, your audiences

Getting inside the minds of your target audience means imagining their complex daily lives. And when your audience is high school students and you’re a university that wants to recruit them, you’ll have to kick your imagination into overdrive to get their attention.

  • These almost-adults and their parents may be peering (or glaring) at each other from opposite sides of a chasm of wildly different priorities.
  • Picking a college is one of the most intimidating decisions they’ve ever been asked to make, and high school advisors are notoriously unhelpful.
  • Your marketing materials are probably in a pile of others they’ve been collecting for months or even years.

Immersed in life, this audience won’t have or take time to figure out what you’re trying to say. If your language isn’t immediately clear and enticing, they’ll be on to the next demand for their eyes and ears.

If this sounds like a no-brainer, prepare to be surprised.

university students walking

One Alabama university’s website uses this copy in its recruitment messaging:

Once becoming a member of a fraternity or sorority your world view of what it means to be a part of an organization dedicated to bettering the lives of its membership will grow according to your involvement and the level by which your organization follows the ideals of its founders.

First, the point of almost any sentence of 50 words will be lost (especially without proper punctuation). But besides that, would this excite a young adult about Greek life at this particular school? Would a parent respond with, “Get the checkbook, honey! This place really knows what you want.”

I left a job at a university recently, so I’m familiar with the issue of “we must sound like an an academic institution” vs. “these kids and their families need to understand and pay attention to us.” Our marketing VP had wisely paid for third-party research (academics enjoy data) to support his pitch for reframing the school’s outreach materials to focus on how our particular college experience would help them get a job and enjoy a fulfilling life.

If the Alabama school took this approach, its copy might say something like this:

Considering Greek life in college? At ABC University, be prepared for fraternities and sororities that are open, welcoming, inclusive and community-minded. Our Greek students say their involvement deepens their academic as well as social experience by exposing them to opportunities they may have missed and friends they might have never met. By joining with your housemates to improve the lives of others, you’ll find that Greek life expands your world view and network of contacts in ways you’ve never imagined.

Even sentences as dull as “ABC’s Greek community consists of 13 nationally recognized organizations” (a common construction) can evoke an emotional response if worded to do so:

Joining one of ABC’s 13 nationally recognized Greek organizations can jumpstart your social game and give you plenty of colleagues to call when you’re stuck on that engineering homework.

What approach does your website take? Whether you’re a university or an agency rescuing animals, you’ll be more successful in recruiting and fundraising if people can imagine themselves in the experience.