Big Words Don’t Make You Sound So Smart

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By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Most attorneys understand the obvious and immediate downside to using big words at trial. A key component of effective persuasion is comprehension. Audiences need to understand what you are saying. This drives action. People act on things that are easy to understand and re-articulate. Consider the results of one study where researchers found that consumers are more likely to buy products that describe features with simple language than they are products that describe features using complex language.

In another study, researchers found that the fluency (ease with which it is pronounced) of a company name impacts whether or not people are willing to buy stock in that company. The authors note “fluently named stocks robustly outperformed stocks with disfluent names.”

The disadvantages of complex language extend beyond just the issue of juror comprehension. I was reminded of this recently when I came across an old paper I wrote when I was in graduate school. It was an interesting topic, but painful to read because it was clear that I was trying to impress with all the big words I knew. As I read through it, all I could think was, “what an idiot I sound like!” Other readers probably agreed as research indicates. For example, one study showed that people who use complex language tend to be viewed as less intelligent by their audience. In short, anyone can use big words and long sentences. The true skill is with the attorney who can speak and write with simplicity and succinctness.

Finally, the most important disadvantage of complex language use at trial is in the deliberation room. Unanimous verdicts happen, but in many instances, deliberations begin with diverse opinions. Some jurors strongly support one side or another. Some only somewhat favor one side or the other. Some are completely neutral. This sets the stage for a battle or great debate in deliberations in which factions of jurors try to take control of deliberations and accumulate enough votes to render the verdict that is consistent with their views.

A critical component for success for your client’s advocates on the jury is their ability to re-articulate arguments and issues. If they lack the confidence or simply cannot effectively re-articulate an argument or issue, it can create problems for you and your client. If a juror lacks the ability or confidence to re-articulate an argument, he or she will remain quiet in deliberations, which allows advocates for the other side to take control of deliberations and drive their agenda. Even worse, your advocate might go ahead and still try to re-articulate the argument and screw it up. This can be worse than silence because it can undermine the credibility of the argument and even the credibility of the party that made the argument even though the problem was ultimately the juror’s failure to adequately re-articulate it.

Complex language undermines jurors’ confidence and ability to rearticulate arguments and issues. This creates momentum for the other side in deliberations. Instead, attorneys need to arm jurors with simple language and explanations that are easy to re-articulate with confidence. This allows your advocates on the jury to take control of deliberations and drive a verdict that favors your client.

Instead, take the short and simple route. It will make your message more understandable, more persuasive, and more effective in the deliberation room.