Adam Patterson | July 29th, 2013

“Write for your audience, not for yourself,” a wizened editor told one of our writers on his first day at a newspaper. “Don’t get too clever”.

Fresh out of university and eager to unleash his intellect on an unsuspecting world, our writer was immediately humbled.

Yet, this advice has served n/n and all of our writers well through careers in journalism and communications. After all, if we want an increasingly impatient audience to take our words seriously, our writing must be relevant to the reader, preferably interesting, and easy to digest. That means the writer’s ego should never be part of the equation.

If you analyse a lot of writing today, you’ll see how such a simple concept is difficult to put into practice, especially in the corporate world. Often this is because lawyers are asked to sign off on, and even edit, text destined for the public domain – and whatever their skills in risk mitigation, wording and structuring content in a reader-friendly way is rarely high on the agenda.

True, it is unfair to single out one profession. That’s because the jurist’s proclivity for elaboration in written exposition (or, a lawyer’s love for complex sentences) is really a symptom of a much wider phenomenon: the use of language to promote elitism.

This elitism-via-language trend first became obvious to most of us at university, when we spent hours trying to decipher one page of a critical theory textbook. Of course, we appreciated that such experiences opened our minds to the richness of language. But we still thought that critical theory wasn’t exactly rocket surgery, so why couldn’t it be written about in a way that is easily understood?

Could it be laziness? After all, elegant simplicity – the goal of all good writing – is hard for even the best writers to sustain. As French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

But upon further reflection, maybe complexity IS the point; maybe such convoluted writing is purposefully designed to admit only a few people to an elite educated club; maybe the academy, like the rest of the world, knows that exclusivity is one of the world’s most prolific creators of — both real and imagined — value.

The corporate world (as every other area of life) also has its own lexicon, and executives want to show belonging, and sophistication, by using it. This seems fairly universal, but studies into culture by Geert Hofstede (originally for IBM) suggest that certain regions of the world are more receptive to such an approach.

In his analysis of “power distance” – one of five dimensions of national culture – Hofstede says that in “high power distance” cultures, powerful people tend to try to look as impressive as possible, and are seen as gurus who transfer personal wisdom.

So in Russia, India, China, Japan, much of Latin America, and the Middle East, leaders are expected to impart information that appears sophisticated and elitist, and this is seen as a reflection of their own intellect. (Note: if you are delivering a presentation in one of these places, always include at least one undecipherable slide to demonstrate your expertise.)

However, in “low power distance” cultures, such as Northern Europe and North America, powerful people try to look less powerful than they are — they want to be seen as “normal.” That means communicating in a way that brings you closer to your audience is more likely to be admired. (Note: you are expected to make causal, yet tasteful jokes, and perhaps weave in a timeless life lesson that your grandmother taught you.)

Years since our writer received the editor’s brusque piece of advice, we still value it. The more pressing question is: what does your audience want from you?

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