The Use of BIG words: “Dumb it Down”

Some people think using big words at meetings or during normal conversations make them so much smarter than you. Maybe some of these people are insecure about what they know about the job, because it’s their only way to shine so they use complex analogies and big words to intimidate people.

Corporate Rebel: I have told a manager to “DUMB it Down”. There is a time and place to flex your book theories and analogies. Some people like to talk over people’s heads, because they are insecure or they really have no clue what they are talking about. There is an appropriate time and place to use big words and a weekly staff meeting is not the place. Verbal communication has to be clear and concise for a diverse audience. As a young leader, I like to break complex things down into small components for an audience. We all are smart, but it is important that we try to remain down to earth.

Big words don’t guarantee bigger results. – Kanika Tolver

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Katrina Jones

I think it’s important to speak to your audience and make your content relatable. Easiest way to lose the bulk of your audience is to start speaking to people at some esoteric, professorial level. But, again, the key thing here is to know your audience.

Andrew Krzmarzick

What if the manager is not insecure or trying to sound smart…but just happens to speak that way? Might be the equivalent of asking a non-native speaker to drop an accent, eh? I kinda like it when folks can find just the right word for accurate meaning…almost poetic at times.

Kanika Tolver

I have worked with managers that talk like a text book, but do not have a clue on how to implement technical approachs, because they never actually done it. When you talk to people on difference education levels or professional work levels you have to be mindful about using BIG words. One of the major KSA in the federal government is “How to communicate orally in a non-techincal manner”.

Sam Allgood

I experienced a good example of this in the Army. The chaplain, who was a friend, would open each staff meeting with prayer … typed out on a 3×5 and full of words that seemed to be designed to impress college professors. Apparently I wasn’t the only one that noticed this. The chaplain asked me one day to fill in for him at a meeting he would miss. Immediately after the prayer, the Colonel turned to me and said, ‘Thank you Chief … I could understand every word of that.’

Kanika Tolver

@Andrew I agree, some people do just speak that way and they are not insecure. I have college degrees and I can flex big words too. But, I can also be very simple and non complex when the time is needed.

Matthew Wayne Gonzales

I think this is a great discussion piece! There exists enough ambiguity in government already, and a big criticism of ours is that we seemingly fail to communicate. I also believe that most of us can tell the difference between someone who intentionally wants to lose their message in their words and someone who can eloquently slip in a couple of monsters to spruce up their speech. Insecure vs. Poetic, if I can borrow your descriptions Kanika and Andrew. Lastly, I think it is definitely worthwhile to ask someone to dumb it down and be clear in communicating. People may not even realize it is a problem!

Peter Sperry

I agree that vocabulary should be tailored to fit the audiance; but if the participants in a weekly staff meeting have difficulty understanding the common terminology of the organization, it may be time to have a conversation with HR about training.

Jay Johnson

I disagree. Having to “dumb down” something implies that your audience is dumber than you. Instead let’s agree to not use any jargon or overly complicated words. This might required us to see things from someone’s elses perspective. When in doubt, ask a child. They’re not dumb, they just haven’t been taught our poor communication habits. 🙂

Faye Newsham

I’ve been accused of being “stuck up” because I carefully pronounce words (big or otherwise). I had elocution and speech therapy in elementary school for a stutter. I’m being careful. I’ve also had folks thank me for my careful diction on the phone because I made their job of taking my information more easy. I love the game of scrabble and have a sizeable vocabulary. I also have a spotty memory which makes easy words sometimes very hard for me to recall (they must be stored in a different file cabinet whose key I keep loosing)… in any case, I’ve been known to search for a simple word and all the big ones leap to mind. I’m a communication professional, I’m all about audience analysis, speaking/writing to that audience, and the KISS principal, but what I say and what I do don’t always match! Before you assume insecurity just make sure you take a moment to let the speaker know that maybe they could use less jargon for clarity and understanding of the whole team. I know I would appreciate a team member taking me aside and letting me know I’m NOT being clear!

Wendell Black

I consider myself to be someone with a limited college education, so when I find a manager that decides to utilize a PhD vocabulary, and they are struggling to maintain it during a conversation, I usually throw it back at them in plain English so that there is no miscommunication…”Let me see if I understand what your trying to say…”

So far this tactic has yet to fail me. :o)

Kanika Tolver

@T. Jay Johnson “Dumb it Down” is just a funny way of saying make things more clear for your audience. @wendell Great method!

Jay Johnson

@Faye My wife accuses me of using big word as well. Guess Stephen Covey had it right – seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Mark Hammer

It’s not about dumbing it down or smartening it up or averaging it sideways. It’s about precision in language and effective communication.

Sometimes more technical terms make things clearer by being more precise; after all, words are generated to make finer distinctions. But that, in turn, depends on your audiences awareness of the relationship between the words and the distinctions they make. If not, then “big words” simply blur distinctions, not clarify them.

Conversely, simple language can end up leaving the recipient of the message unclear, precisely because the language, while familiar and easily processed without assistance, leaves things unclear.

Verify with your audience that they have gotten what you wanted them to get. And if they didn’t, adjust your language in the one direction OR the other.

There ARE rhetorical reasons for using “high falutin'” versus “plain” language too. We use bigger more sophisticated words to convey that “nuance and/or precision is important here”. Conversely, simpler language conveys that there are some “basic truths” here to be considered, and that one is intent on “cutting to the chase”. The quality of language employed conveys the lens to be looked through.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

As someone who likes to sprinkle in a big word on occasion, I agree that we should understand our audience and meet their needs if we want to reach them. Sometimes, the big word can beautifully describe the situation better than a string of little words. For example, you can say that someone is upset, confused, panicky, and lost.

But I like to say the person is “discombobulated.” Even the word sounds like it is on the verge of losing its marbles. Big words are like spices. Use them sparingly to flavor your writing and speech. But too much leaves a bad taste in a person’s mouth. Speak to elucidate and not to obfuscate.

Ed Albetski

At a practice presentation, I was told to prepare an “executive version” and that meant, yeah, “dumb it down”. Oh, and keep it short; two minutes tops because their attention wanders. Great. Learned from this that our executive staff were idiots with ADHD. I edited it and ran it past my 8 year old. I was congratulated for a great presentation. And folks wonder why I drink…

Ed Albetski

My 8 year old lost his usefulness for this by the time he was 10. I passed the exec presentations on to folks with younger kids. 🙂 My boys are in their 20’s now and giving presentations of their own, and yes, I always advise them to be aware of their audience. Always talk to the highest ranking guy in the room. And that means, yeah, unless you are working for someone like Bill Gates, dumb it down.

Jennifer Meffert

I have heard that you should choose a vocabulary that is 3 grade levels below the lowest degree obtained by someone in the room. That sounds kind of confusing but basically if you can only safely assume that the people in the audience have a high school degree then you should speak with a 9th grade level vocabulary. Most newspapers are written at a 9th or 10th grade reading level now.

Neil Bonner

It’s not a question of using “big words” or dumbing it down. For me the key to effective communication is to be clear, precise and concise. You can use any vocabulary that will work with your intended audience as long as you are clear, precise and concise you message will be received.