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The plain truth about unambiguous language by Phil Hesketh


Like that one.

Irony eh?

I spoil you sometimes.

In summary here is what my October post concludes:

• The more detail and raw fact in a story, the more likely we are to believe it.
• The more vivid a story is, the more we believe it to be true. It's critical that customers believe in your product or service. So everything you say about it, either in person or in print, needs to ring true. And that means using language that is unambiguous.

Copywriters are skilled at presenting a product's features and benefits in a way that is clear and concise. They know that this makes any claims more believable.

And if you want the academic rigour to back up what I'm saying here it is:

I know that painting a 'vivid picture' seems to contradict the advice to shy away from using elaborate, flowery words. But you can be just as vivid using concrete facts as with fanciful notions. And this very fact was proven by a 2010 study by Jochim Hansen of New York University and the unfortunately named Michaela Wänke of the University of Basel. They asked participants to read one of the two statements set out below and to say whether or not they thought it was true. Here are the statements:

1. Hamburg is the European record holder concerning the number of bridges.
2. In Hamburg, one can count the highest number of bridges in Europe.

Although both have exactly the same meaning, more people believed the second sentence than believed the first. It's not because there's more detail in the second—there isn't. It's because it doesn't beat about the bush. It conjures a simple, unambiguous and compelling image: you counting bridges. Hence, it's more believable. (They did a bit more than bridges in Hamburg but the findings were always the same.)

Abstract words are handy for talking conceptually but they leave a lot of wiggle-room. Whereas concrete words refer to something more precise. For instance, vanilla ice-cream is specific while dessert could refer to anything sweet eaten after a main meal. Verbs as well as nouns can be more or less abstract. Verbs like 'count' and 'write' are solid, concrete and unambiguous, while verbs like 'help' and 'insult' are open to some interpretation. Right at the far end of the abstract spectrum are verbs like 'love' and 'hate' which leave a lot of room for interpretation.

So, if you want more people to believe you, speak and write solidly and unambiguously. I can't say it any clearer than that.