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K.I.S.S. _ Keep It Simple, Stupid!

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Sometimes speakers are tempted to show off their eloquence (or superiority) and level of education by the judicious employment of polysyllabic words where their monosyllabic cousins would suffice (exactly what I just did then - a more effective way of saying the same thing is 'using big words when little ones would do'). But if you look at some of the famous speeches I feature on my site one thing that will strike you is the simplicity of most of the language used.

Now I am not encouraging you to become a hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobe and I do not mean to floccinaucinihilipilificate about large vocabularies (just showing off myself there - the first means a person who has a fear of using long words, the second is the act of estimating something as worthless). It is just that simple words are usually far more effective in getting a message across than complex ones.

If your audience has to keep dipping into a mental dictionary for clarification every twenty seconds, you've lost them!

Keep it simple, and then when you do deliberately use a long or unusual word to emphasis a specific point, it will stand out and be remembered.

Take the 'we shall fight' paragraph in his ‘We shall fight them on the beaches' speech; a masterpiece of plain speaking. There are 146 words in it, and only five (!) have more than two syllables (of which four are neither unusual nor 'fancy': confidence, whatever, surrender and liberation; the word ‘subjugated' gets its impact from the fact that it stands out as a word not used in everyday language).

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, 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, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Or take the penultimate paragraph of JFK's Inaugural Address. Another masterpiece, another exercise in simplicity.

“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility -- I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Out of 111 words, only eight have more than two syllables, and again, none of them particularly fancy or unusual (history, generations, maximum, responsibility, generation, devotion, endeavour and Americans).

Yet politicians, journalists and businessmen feel the need to demonstrate their education and supposed intellectual superiority to the rest of us by using what can only be described as gobbledygook, bureaucratese (such as the UK politician Tessa Jowell, saying we need more 'sustainable eating in schools' when she really means ‘more fruit and veg') or even gibberish.

George Orwell parodied this trend (observable even 60 years ago) in his famous 1946 essay Politics And The English Language by rewriting a good example of traditional English into ‘modern' English.

Thus the famous biblical passage from Ecclesiatises:

“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all”.

is rewritten as:

“Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account”.

Political language”, he wrote, “... consists of gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug ….. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church …. Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

Even if you are using simple language, it is also important to make what you are saying intelligible. I know this sounds pretty obvious, but just because you know what you are trying to say, it doesn't mean the rest of us do. All too often speakers ramble on with garbled syntax and poor grammar until they simply don't make sense.

The most well known proponent of this in the UK was probably John Prescott, the ex-Deputy Prime Minister. How about this for sheer gibberish:

The objectives remain the same and indeed that has been made clear by the Prime Minister in a speech yesterday that the objectives are clear and the one about the removal of the Taliban is not something we have as a clear objective to implement but it is possibly a consequence that will flow from the Taliban clearly giving protection to Bin Laden and the UN Resolution made it absolutely clear that anyone who find them in that position declares themselves an enemy and that clearly is a matter for these objectives”.

Now Mr. Prescott's supporters might label such criticism as intellectual snobbery given his lack of a higher education (conveniently ignoring the fairly basic requirement for a national politician to be able to communicate). What is the excuse for Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and professor of Theology? What on earth did he mean by the following?

“We need, not human words that will decisively capture what the word of God has done and is doing, but words that will show us how much time we have to take in fathoming this reality, helping us turn and move and see, from what perspectives, the patterns of light and shadow in a world where the Word's light has been manifest”.

Or how about this from Metropolitan Police Commissioner and ostentatious intellectual Sir Ian Blair (speaking about the London bombings of 7 July and the shooting of the innocent Mr. De Menzie 15 days later):

“We want a 6 July police service, not a 7 July police service. However, we can't have that to which 6 July aspired without understanding 7 July. Moreover …. I believe we can't now have either 7 July or 6 July without risks like that of 22 July”.

So here are a few tips on keeping it simple (apart from having somebody ‘normal' read your speech to see if it makes sense):

Use the Active Voice

Never use the passive when you can use the active one instead (before you email to point it out, I know that you can probably find hundreds of examples of me using it on this site and in my E-Manual; sometimes some manage to slip through).

The passive voice is used where something happens to the subject of the sentence (see – I nearly used the passive and wrote ‘ where the subject is acted upon' ), and it usually involves the verb ‘to be'. For example, “a decision was made”, or “prices were increased”, or “songs were sung”.

Very often politicians use it when they are seeking to avoid blame or responsibility. So “mistakes were made” is often an easier way of saying “we (or heavens forbid, ‘I' ) made mistakes ”. Likewise, “a decision was taken”can be a way of avoiding the dreaded (for a politician) words “I decided …”.

The reason the active voice is more effective is that it is far more direct, and usually shorter than the passive. Thus Eric Clapton's line “I shot the sheriff,” is both shorter and more effective than “the sheriff was shot by me”. And “We will fight them on the beaches” beats “They will be fought by us on the beaches” hands down, I think you'll agree. “I believe” is much better than “it is believed by the speaker”.

A good way to clear up your speech of the passive voice is to circle every use of the verb ‘to be' (including the future and past tenses, e.g. ‘will', ‘was' and ‘were') to see if they are used in a passive way and if they can be converted to the active.

However, you won't always want to do this. Good English contains a balance of the two, and sometimes using the passive voice simply sounds better, especially when the action has been carried out by someone unknown (e.g. “a car was broken into last night on Church St.” or “a fight broke out”) or whose identification isn't important (e.g. “the mail is delivered twice a day”). The problem arises when the passive is over -used. That is when speech becomes over-complex and unintelligible.

Use Short Words

Never use a long word if you can think of a short one. In his unpublished ‘Scaffolding of Rhetoric' Churchill wrote:

“The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words. The error of this idea will appear from what has been written. The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force to simple understandings than words recently introduced from the Latin and the Greek. All the speeches of great English rhetoricians--except when addressing highly cultured audiences--display an uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage--so long as such words can fully express their thoughts and feelings....”

When Churchill refers to the ‘more ancient' words he is referring to those of Germanic origin. Much of everyday English comes from German and French, but the more basic words we use tend to be Germanic. This is because after the Norman conquest, the 95% of the population who were commoners still spoke Anglo Saxon while the only people who spoke French were the ruling elite.

The result is that for many things there are two words in use: a short, plain, ‘Germanic' word and an alternative, ‘fancy', French one. Look at these examples:

‘Ordinary' German Word

door (from tür)

house (from ‘haus')

make (from ‘machen')

land (from ‘land')

drink (from ‘trink')

fat (from ‘fett')

'Fancy' French Word

portal (from ‘porte')

mansion (from ‘maison')

fabricate (from ‘fabriquer')

garden (from ‘jardin')

beverage (from ‘breuvage')

corpulent (from ‘corpulent')

Avoid Foreign/Latin Words

Thirdly, avoid using foreign or Latin (or scientific) phrases if you can think of an English alternative. Their use can have two unintended consequences.

Firstly, it can make you sound like Del Boy Trotter (for non-UK readers, a character from the sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses'), who used phrases such as ‘menage a trois' as an exclamation of surprise, or ‘mangetout' to mean ‘no problem' or ‘my pleasure' .

Secondly, it can make you sound pretentious. Criticising the newspaper columnist Polly Toynbee's fondness for using French phrases such as ‘bien pensant', Justin McKeating brilliantly wrote: “I have enough French to know that the first syllable of ‘pensant' is pronounced ‘ponce'.

So in summary, as we used to say in the army – K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid!

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