11/01/2013 08:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Simple Language Isn't for Bird Brains

Universally, the biggest gasp I get when I meet people new to marketing, PR, or advertising is that most ad copy is restricted to a 6th grade reading level. I am going to use this blog post to reassure everyone that writing simply should mean writing elegantly and not writing simplistically, resulting in young adult fiction. While the reading ease is kept simple, we're generally not writing to appeal to 12-year-olds. One of the biggest challenges that writers have across all disciplines is with interpretation. While ambiguity and nuance is favored by poets and novelists, creating copy that isn't concise, clear, and succinct is a disservice to my clients.

What is required, at least online and when engaging bloggers, is messaging that endures the obligatory game of telephone that always happens when sharing between people. If you've never heard of telephone, I thought I would share this from Wikipedia:

The first player whispers a phrase or sentence to the next player. Each player successively whispers what that player believes he or she heard to the next. The last player announces the statement to the entire group. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly, and often amusingly, from the one uttered by the first.

Social media is essentially a game of telephone, so it is critical to make sure the last player receives as intact a message as possible, no matter who is in the chain. No matter their background, native tongue, education, gender, cultural heritage, age, or disposition, our most important job is creating messaging that both injects a durable copy into the mind and consciousness of the consumer while also making it past the client's review.

It isn't easy, to be sure. If I choose a word that someone isn't familiar with, they generally won't take the time to explore the OED -- not because of intellect but because people are busy, people have limited time and attention, and we don't have them on salary. The time we have with them is generally limited to five minutes from opening an email pitch to when a blogger clicks on [Post] on their blog.

Gustave Flaubert was fastidious in his devotion to finding the right word, le mot juste, and so should we be because when you're able to spend a little time distilling your message, the client's message, or your company's mission, then you'll probably learn quite a lot about yourself as well as how you're perceived.

I had been using the word premasticate in my talks about blogger outreach and online messaging because I like to think about how the kiss was developed, in a time before Gerber's when baby food was made by a mother who would pre-chew food for her child. I also like to think of sea birds going out to sea, fishing for smelt, and then coming back and feeding their chicks through regurgitation. I loved these visuals and it always amused classes when I did my Blue-footed Booby mating dance (pictured above) and subsequent feeding of chicks as marketing metaphor. However, I now know that the visual is vile and is often considered infantilizing to bloggers.

Like I said, I am always listening and always learning. Progress not perfection.

When you think carefully about your core message, think about not just the ideas but also the consumability of each word (6th or 7th grade reading ease), you also realize that thinking this way can also be very useful for organic SEO and search.

How? Well, when you consider every word, you'll start to think about how other people read and comprehend your brand. Have you ever listened to an interview of someone who has a highly-technical job? Their responses tend to include acronyms, nicknames, and references that are only understandable by other scientists, politicians, engineers, doctors, and lawyers. A good interviewer asks what those acronyms means, slows the interviewee down, asks them to explain what they're saying. They call this unpacking your thinking, or layman's terms.

Google runs on layman's terms -- all search does. And because search engines don't use thesauri and are painfully explicit, it's important to broaden your choice of words (search keywords). For example, a television is also popularly called a TV, a flatscreen, a plasma, a big screen, an HDTV -- even a boob tube and idiot box. If you don't include them all in your online copy -- if you don't know the potential lingua fanca of everyone, you really had better cover your bases.

In summary, the resulting "simple" of any copy you write for general consumption should be as accessible as possible -- not simplistic. More like Hemingway -- to the marrow -- rather than of a lower fidelity. Writing like this requires and demands that we, instead, work harder, become more concise, and distill the larger prose, copy, corpus, text, into something more essential, more easily and universally comprehensible and intact.

It demands the we bear the brunt of the load, do all the hard work, instead of depending on others to parse what we're on about. And, on that note, I am well aware that I didn't follow any of my rules while writing this post. Let me know if I should have.