The quality of the thinking is inversely proportional to the length of the words.

I heard an American radio show recently featuring prank calls. In this case a father had called in to set-up his daughter. She’d taken her car into the garage and was waiting for an estimate. Her dad said she knew nothing about cars so they could wind her up.

So the DJ phoned her and pretended to be the mechanic.
He said, “I’m afraid you’re going to need the water in your headlights changed.”
She said, “Okay, will that be expensive?”
He said, “Well it depends on what water we use.”
She said, “What sort do you normally use?”
He said, “Well we could use tap-water, it’ll do the job in the short term. But it’s not ideal.”
She said, “What do you recommend?”
He said, “Well, if you want to do the job properly I’d recommend Evian.”She said, “Okay, I guess it is the best.”

Now you might find it amazing that a grown woman agreed to have the water in her headlights changed. But, like a lot of people, she was intimidated by her own fear of looking stupid. She was convinced she knew nothing about cars and how they worked. Consequently, she was convinced that any question she asked would make her look stupid. Consequently she didn’t ask any questions. Consequently she was treated as if she was stupid.

Personally I work on the principle that knowledge comes from questioning things. If a thing is right they must be able to explain it. And if they can’t explain it, maybe it isn’t right.

That’s why, when any word crops up that I don’t understand, I immediately ask what it means. Clever people will want to explain it. People who are trying to blag me won’t. Sometimes the people who use the long words don’t even know what they mean themselves. They’re just using the word because they’ve heard someone else use it. And it sounded impressive.

So they think it’ll make them sound more impressive too. These are people who are worried about the poor quality of their thinking. They want to make it look more impressive by using long words.

I find there’s a simple equation for this. The quality of the thinking is inversely proportional to the length of the words used.

You either take a complicated thought and make it simple. Or you take a simple thought and make it complicated. Long words are the decoration, the jewellery, the chrome. Long words are the bling. This season’s must-have accessory. As you might expect, there’s an awful lot of buzz-words in our business.

Words that people use because they think it gives them credibility. Like wearing a brand.

About a year ago the must-have words were ‘robust’ and ‘iteration’. No presentation was complete without ‘robust data’ and the ‘current iteration’ of the campaign.

Currently the must-have words are ‘granular’ and ‘heueristics’. No presentation today is complete without ‘granular data’ and a need for ‘new heuristic processes’. Does it work, is there a point?

Well we are in the presentation business after all. Maybe this language is our packaging, our added-value. Maybe clients are impressed. If the thinking isn’t up to much, the least we can do is dress it up.

If we said to a client, ‘We’re taking a more granular approach to our heueristics, to give us a more robust iteration of the previous data.” A client might think that sounds like we’re really good at our job.

Whereas if we said, “We’re looking more carefully at the numbers so we can make better decisions.” They’d probably say, well duh.

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    Some clients need educating in the ways of the common man. A large polo mallet does the trick.

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    There’s a phrase: “Happiness is inversely proportionate to one’s level of expectation” so I guess clients who love all this garbagespeak must either be very unhappy or expect their agency to deliver something way beyond their remit. Personally, I prefer granules in Coffee.

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    In a pitch, Mike Greenlees once said to a client, “In order to increase stock-turn you need to optimise your on-shelf margins.”
    We won the pitch.
    Later I asked Mike what it meant.
    He said, “Well if they make it cheaper people will buy more.”
    I asked him why he didn’t just say that.
    He said, “Because then they would have thought I knew nothing about marketing.”

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    When long words are used correctly, they are used in order to be more economical. One long word might do the job of 10 small ones.

    But of course being economical isn’t always your chief concern. There are plenty of reasons why you’d be better using the 10 short words over 1 long one; it makes what you say more accessible, the tone more conversational. etc.

    Long words rightfully belong in academic essays. Here being economical is a concern. And in academia, the slightest nuances of a word are important; 10 short ones may not capture what you want to say. But, with academia you can safely assume that anyone reading the essay will share and understanding of the words you use. They will be versed in the language. And in that respect you’re safe.

    Reminds me of this project ( which won a student D&Ad silver last year. The chap altered various signs in and effort to expand peoples vocabularies… things like ‘Unctuous Veneer’ were used instead of ‘Slippery Surface’. Nice idea… but of course on a road sign you need the most accessible words possible in order to reach as many people as possible.

    Is there a benefit to a wide vocabulary? Or would you be better using many smaller words to build a concepts like ‘iteration’, or ‘heuristic’ in ways that are accessible to all? I suppose it depends on the context – time and space constraints, audience. And what your trying to use the words for… to communicate meaningfully, or to put on a show and spruce things up.

    What say you guys?

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    Just another thought… why is saying ‘unctuous’ any better than saying ‘slippery’?

    Both express the same thing, except you’d probably have to explain what unctuous meant afterwards using other terms.

    Is it just a form of sublimated elitism?
    When words stop being useful as tools, why not let them die off? Sentimentality? Or is it a matter of having variety – the spice of life?

  • A good warning shot in the war against nonsense.

    Now if we can only get people to stop spouting on about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs every 10 seconds, we’ve cracked it.

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    It’s all about selling isn’t it Dave.
    Selling the idea in a language the client understands.

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    I saw a bumper sticker in New York I liked, ESCHEW OBFUSCATION.

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    I think it was Mark Twain who coined ‘eschew surplusage’.

    One of Luke Sullivan’s maxims too.

    The other is Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity…. (with the first two struck through)!

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    I like The 3 Rules of Advertising: Repetition, Repetition, and Repetition.

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    “I apologize for writing you a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one.” Mark Twain:

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  • Sir Ernest Gower’s ‘Complete Plain Word’ will always provide a sound perspective on misuse of language. Especially his chapter on buzz-phrase generators. It inspired me once to do a new business mailer containing a ‘marketing buzz-phrase generator’. It worked really well. Propective clients requested copies of it to pass on. If we don’t use adjectives like ‘robust’ when describing data does it suggest the data is suspect. I think these words get used to reassure ourselves and clients that we are being holistic in a synergistic way. My particular favourite useless word in ‘centric’ you can attact it to almost anything and you’ll sound like US MBA grad. Brand-centric, customer-centric, data-centric, ROI-centric, clarity-centric, ….egocentric?
    Perhaps we should have more focus-centric dialogue to scope possible worst-case senarios rather than assume blue-sky outcomes?

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    Grilla – that’swhatisaytoallmyexs.

    my old Jido (arabic grandpa) once said to me – Jayne, God is one.
    i could have said actually Jido there are quite a few, it’s pretty crowded up there.
    but i didn’t – in that case less was definitely more 🙂

    funny how we humans can create so many ideas, religions and philosophies,
    so we can have a reason to ‘just be’.

    we can even talk more about talking less.

    oh well – better dash ‘time doth flit, oh shit’ as DP would say 🙂

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    Jayne, evidently you know how to hit a man where it hurts. Here’s a tip for future reference: the human male also has clusters of pain receptors located inside the wallet and bank account.

    Use this information wisely.

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    ah Grilla, if only i cared more about money. life would be so much simpler and i’d be a lot richer now.

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    Grilla – youhadmeathello 🙂

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    I’ve had these damn “granules” running round the logic part of my brain all last night. I asked myself: “What would Bill Bernbach say?” Would he say: It’s a load of bull, or would he say: Granule is to Account Group as Lemon is to Creative.

    The emotional side of my brain today sat and watched two Chinchillas at it all day long in a cage, blissfully unaware of the world outside of them. I wondered if they were Zen Chinchillas who were previously people in advertising.

  • Ah Kevin, The difference between your Zen Chinchillas and advertising is their experience is shared. In advertising it’s usually an autoerotic past-time.

    I had a mate who quit Madison Ave because he got fed up discussing the meaning of the word ‘crunchy’. I also have mates in Oz who recall with great affection the pasing of ‘enzymes’ in washing powder briefs – that’s client documents type briefs, not small under-garments.

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    from what i’ve seen Rob, it doesn’t make any difference if there was shared experience.

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    sorry… Bob, what’s wrong with me today! 🙂