Know All the Words You Can, Just Use Them Sparingly

Next week, we’re re-launching It will have an updated design, new mobile friendly features, and a few other adjustments to keep the site fresh and inviting. One of those adjustments, includes updated bios for our team paired with a favorite communications-related quote.

The need for the quote sent me on a brief search, which started as many do, with Abraham Lincoln. I tend to look to Lincoln for a good quote because of his near universal appeal and wonderful control of language. In this case though, while he does have some interesting thoughts on things like semicolons, I settled on a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower to pair with my new bio. It goes like this:

“An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.”

As a communicator, I’d like to think that I fail this definition each time I open my mouth or type something. The second part of the quote actually isn’t related to communications at all. That seems more to do with a flaw of character than anything else. But in terms of communications, it’s the first part of the quote that I find meaningful.

It takes me back to teachers and family that always encouraged reading—anything really—to build a strong and deep vocabulary. Words were always thought of in my world growing up as an indicator of success. They were the foot soldiers of stature, credibility, and authority. Without the right words, those things weren’t attainable. But then somewhere along the way I became a professional communicator. And it was a very strange thing. Because for the longest time, what was valued and invested in was the acquiring of words and knowledge of them. That set up a battle with a life’s work that valued them differently. It’s a contrast I struggled with for a while and that I still many people struggle with today.

And why is that?

Well here’s the intersection for me. Yes, it is important to collect words over time. We need to know how to arrange them and understand the meaning and likely use of as many of them as possible. We come across all manner of people and circumstances in life and being able to reach into that vault and understand can be a way to establish, build, and maintain important life relationships. However, as communicators we must never lose connection to our audience. We must never even get close to leaving them behind, buried in, or distracted by excess. Our charge is to convey meaning, to move people to action, to help people feel and care—to communicate—not complicate.

So the next time, you write or say something and a person says “gee that sounded really smart”, stop them and genuinely ask them, “but did it mean anything to you?” If the answer is yes, then job well done. If the answer is no, there’s still work to be done. Use fewer words that carry greater meaning. That’s what’s really smart.

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