You’re writing a cover letter for the greatest job you’ve ever seen. You’ve never been more excited about a job posting—let’s say the position is “Associate Puppy Cuddler” (starting salary: $12 billion per year)—so you really want to impress the recruiters with your class, your smarts, and your vocabulary. You set your font to the fanciest cursive typeface you can find, open a browser to Thesauraus.com, and begin.
“To the stalwart impresarios of PuppyCuddles Incorporated,” you write, already nailing this. “I send you this missive to petition for the vacant appointment of Associate Puppy Cuddler at your venerable outpost. My prowess in this arena is manifold and myriad—to wit: In 2013, I was voted Most Cuddly Human by a panel of 7 dogs…”
The recruiter stopped reading long ago. The job went to a candidate who summarized their skills in three pithy sentences, addressed the recruiter by name, and used a standard Times New Roman font. Better luck next time, Chaucer.
We’d all like to sound as smart as we can, as often as we can. Using big, “five-dollar words” (as my 5th grade teacher once called them) seems like an obvious way to achieve this—but, as recent research shows, it’s almost guaranteed to backfire. It turns out that trying too hard to sound smart by using big, scholarly sounding words actually makes you sound dumber.
“Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers’ evaluations of the text and its author,” said Daniel Oppenheimer, author of the Princeton University study Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Oppenheimer had students read a collection of documents including grad school applications, thesis excerpts, and translations of writing by philosopher Rene Descartes, then rate the perceived intelligence of the papers’ authors. Oppenheimer manipulated certain writing samples to include unnecessarily long words and flowery fonts in an attempt to look smarter or more important. Students, it turned out, saw right through this—and hated it. Works with these fancy quirks added were consistently rated as less intelligence than those that used simple, clear language and font.
“One thing seems certain: write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent,” says Oppenheimer.
Or, as they say in that bastion of straight-shooting clarity known as the U.S. Military: Keep it simple, stupid.
Want to put the theory to the test? Try one of these short jokes that will make you sound like a genius.