Does your message get lost in your vocabulary?

I’m not embarrassed to say when I don’t understand what someone is saying, or what they have written. If I don’t understand what I read, then the writer hasn’t communicated with me; they haven’t shared their ideas in a way that I can understand.

A few years ago, I read Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds by Donald Harman Akenson. This book is a historical reconstruction of how the Bible and the Talmuds may have been invented, based on available evidence. The arguments are so interesting and and I learned a lot, BUT the language was so dense that I had to have a dictionary beside me as I read it.

It’s possible that I am not the audience that the author was writing for…but I have two degrees and my vocabulary is pretty good. I love to learn new words but this book had me stumbling every few pages. My little Oxford English Dictionary with 90,000 words and phrases was completely useless and I had to go online to find definitions for words such as, tergiversation and imbrication.

In case you think my little dictionary didn’t contain obscure words, I can tell you it did. Where I expected to find imbrication I learned the word imbroglio…and that’s not a word you see every day! It’s pronounced im-broh-li-oh. It means “a very confused or complicated situation”…which is ironic because I remember being a bit confused by how many words I didn’t recognize in Akenson’s book.

Why is this important?

If you’re a writer with a message that you want to communicate to a wide audience, do you want to use words that will confuse them or make them feel stupid? I don’t think so.

You want to use words that draw your readers in and keep them engaged; words that make them want to keep reading and learning (or being entertained); words that convey your ideas with simplicity (if possible) and elegance.

When I teach writing courses, I look for words and phrases for learners to revise into plain language. This teaches my students how to make sure their message doesn’t get lost in their choice of vocabulary.

Do you think your choice of words is confusing your audience? Send me an email if you’d like help getting your message heard.