The Persuasive Power of Simplicity

letterAAccording to William Zinsser in On Writing Well, “clutter is the disease of American writing”. He continues by saying, “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

Unfortunately, I think his assessment is on target. And from a copywriting point of view, I see so many corporation and business website owners who inflate their sentences just to sound important.

I’m reminded of a poem I learned in grade school entitled “Don’t Use Big Words”:

In promulgating your esoteric cogitation’s or articulating your superficial and sentimentalities and amicable philosophical or psychological observations, beware of platitudinous panderosity.

The satire of the poem is obvious but the proof of the advice is also there.

But writing simply is not relegated to using simple words but using as few words as possible to get your idea across. You want to prune your sentences to their essential components and not waste one word. So if a word doesn’t serve any function, especially adverbs that add no new idea to the verb, the passive voice that confuses the reader about who is doing the action, should be ruthlessly cut away.

An analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address reveals that of the 701 words used, 505 are words of one syllable and 122 are words of two syllables. Talk about the power in simplicity!

Now I’m aware that if this advice was taken to the extreme then our sentences would only be left with a subject, verb and object, but we are less in danger of this extreme.

Good writing is concise. This does not mean that every sentence should be short, or omit details about your subject, but every word should count. There are so many expressions that are carelessly thrown around which break this rule. Some of the more common ones are:

“the reason why is that” — the reason

“he is a man who” — he

“owing to the fact that” — since (because)

“at this point in time” — now

Then there are those inflated words which are just elaborate disguises for more common concepts:

“conceptualize” — think

“finalize” — finish

“inoperative” — doesn’t work

“optimize” — improve

Plus all those other “meta-“, “mega-“, “-ize” words.

For example, I just picked the following sentence from a marketer’s website:

“So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you find you have a little trouble keeping up. Things that used to work “great” don’t always work so great anymore.”

How could these sentences be reduced to their central idea? What about:

“So don’t worry if you lag behind since the market has changed.”

This sentence is more concise, direct and takes up less space which is a precious commodity in any sales letter. The majority of sales letters I’ve seen online can benefit from this ruthless distilling into a concentrated selling potion.

Here is another paragraph randomly picked from another sales letter:

“If I chose to work with you on this, you will not be expected to have any software business knowledge at all. That’s where I come in. I plan on mentoring you in every important area of the business. This mentoring will fall in line with the curriculum I’m developing for my software business training program.”

And here is my edited version:

“I’m willing to train my chosen partner in all aspects of the software business so no prior knowledge is required.”

Another way you can clear away the chaff and allow the kernel of your writing to shine through is by getting rid of any preposition attached to verbs that don’t need any help. So instead of writing, “We can free up your time for more activities,” get rid of the ‘up’, it’s not needed.

Also many adjectives add no new information to the noun, such as “personal” in “a personal contact of mine” or “his personal trainer”. Someone’s trainer is that person’s personal trainer–that is what “his” mean.

Most adverbs can turn out to be plain clutter also. If you attach an adverb to a verb which carries a similar meaning, you’ll irritate the reader. Don’t write that someone clenched his fist tightly; there is no other way to clench your fist. What about, “she shouted loudly”? These redundant adverbs simply weaken the verbs.

If there is anything that can reduce the persuasive power of your copywriting and it’s those “tiny modifiers”. They often qualify feelings, thoughts and what you saw: “sort of”, “kind of”, “very”, “pretty much”, “rather,” “quite,” “a bit,” “a little,” and a host more. All these words place you on the fence instead of squarely on the side you should be.

Avoid saying you were a bit surprised, a little annoyed, sort of depressed. Instead, be surprised, be annoyed, and be depressed! These “tiny modifier” words make you appear timid and less convincing.

One of my favorite quotes from Zinsser is “Writing is like a good watch-it should run smoothly and have no extra parts.” And this advice is especially critical in sales letter writing where extra parts could cost you extra sales.

So simplify, be concise, be more persuasive and make more sales.

2 Responses to “The Persuasive Power of Simplicity”

  1. […] is not relegated to using simple words but using as few words as possible to get your idea across. [… continue.] Copywriting That Gets Results Copywriting Coaching For […]

  2. I am sharing this with the Helping Friends Career Network.. LOVE the blog and practical wisdom, Ray! Thanks!

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