Friday, March 5, 2010

How to Use Fewer Words and Still Sound Intelligent

One of my favorite movie lines is from the oldie Amadeus, in which Emperor Joseph II, after hearing one of Mozart's rapid-fire pieces, tries to tell the young composer why the piece just isn't suitable for a concert.

"There are simply," the rather haughty emperor says, "too many notes."

He was wrong, of course; this was Mozart, after all. But for the vast majority of us, using too many words never leads anywhere admirable.

I think a lot of unnecessary words and unnecessarily long phrases come from our own insecurities. We want to sound more intelligent, more officious, more leaderlike when we use big words. Too often, though, we come across sounding rather pretentious.

Here are a few common instances in which we tend to use too many words and how to cut back on 'em.

  • Rather than "prior to" or "in anticipation of," just use before.
  • Rather than "subsequent to" or "following on," use after.
  • Rather than "at the same time as" or "simultaneously with," use as.
  • Rather than "it is crucial that," "it is necessary that," "there is a need/necessity for," "it is important that," "it is incumbent upon," or "it cannot be avoided," just use should or must.
  • Rather than "is able to," "has the opportunity to," "is in a position to," "has the capacity for," or "has the ability to," just use can.

If you do this, I promise that you'll still sound intelligent and no one will think less of you.

Well, an emperor maybe, but who cares about them?