KissYou’ve probably heard the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. I’ve never liked the ‘stupid’ bit, so prefer to say Keep It Short and Sweet.

But what’s the science behind why simplicity works?

I’ve recently read the book Presentation Genius by Simon Raybould, which contains 40 insights from the science of presenting. Chapter 3 describes research by Daniel M Oppenheimer of Princeton University, with the gob-smackingly beautiful title of ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’.

Experiment 1

First, Oppenheimer looked at whether complex text made the author appear smarter. He took essays written for submission to graduate school, and created ‘highly complex’ and ‘moderately complex’ versions by substituting some of the original words with the longest possible alternative found in a thesaurus. 71 participants then rated the essays on a scale of -7 to +7 according to how likely they were to reject or accept each submission.

  • Original excerpts averaged 0.62
  • ‘Moderately complex’ excerpts averaged -0.17
  • ‘Highly complex’ excerpts averaged -0.21

This seems to show that increasing the complexity of text makes the author seem less intelligent.

Experiment 2

Next, Oppenheimer gave different translations of Descartes’ Meditation IV to two groups of undergraduates. Half were told who wrote the original, the others were not.

It turned out that the author of the ‘simpler’ translation was rated as smarter, whether or not participants knew who the original author was.

Experiment 3

Then, Oppenheimer adapted the first experiment by replacing some of the original words with simpler alternatives.

Sure enough, the simplified versions meant the authors were rated as being more intelligent.

Fluency: the ease by which words are processed

Writing with more ‘fluency’ is more accessible and easier to understand,  so results in highest presumed intelligence for the author. This effect is greater when it’s unexpected (when people find things easier to understand than they thought they would).

Experiment 4

To test fluency, Oppenheimer measured 12 point Times New Roman against the italic version of Juice ITC font (which is much harder to read). Unsurprisingly, the author of the document written in Times New Roman was believed to be more intelligent.

What this means for you

In marketing copy, you want people to trust what you say so they will buy what you sell. As readers assume that people who write simply are more intelligent, you need to make your writing clear and concise, and use simple fonts.

If you’re stuck, I can help you with that.

photo credit: THE Kiss via photopin (license)

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