Happy birthday, Peter Mark Roget!

In honor of the thesaurus king’s natal day, I thought I’d write about word choice.

The Young Person's ThesaurusI have long loved the thesaurus. (According to the inscription in the well-worn copy of The Young Person’s Thesaurus, I got my first one in 1971 when I was 9.) But just like spell check, the thesaurus can be your friend or your enemy. It’s all in how you treat it.

When I feel like I’m overusing a term, I’ll check the thesaurus for another option. I try to choose words that fit with the subject matter, its purpose and the audience consuming the content. This ensures that my intention and idea are clear, keeping me out of trouble.

Advice on word choice

1. Choose words that are appropriate for your audience.

The right words can create a connection between you and your audience; the wrong ones can alienate or distract them. Use vocabulary that resonates with your audience, not befuddle them. The focus then shifts from you and your great ideas to them. Your audience is wondering what the word means, feeling dumb for not knowing it or thinking you’re a tool for using it.

Case in Point: John Mackey, Whole Foods’ co-CEO, made a big gaffe on the radio the other morning when he dropped the word fascist a few times. He turned off a lot of people, and now says, “I regret using it.”  Instead of winning over his audience, and readers for the book he was promoting, he alienated a lot of them and turned promotional coverage into reporting on his poor word choice.

Word Choice Tip: If you never have or rarely do use a particular word you see in the Thesaurus, that’s a good sign that you shouldn’t put it in your text. Similarly, if you worry that your audience won’t understand the term, that’s another reliable signal that you may want to avoid deploying it. Finally, if the term is controversial, offensive or otherwise charged, you should probably skip it.

2. Choose words for clarity.

If you work in a highly technical or academic field, you may believe that the bigger the word, the better. After all, you get a lot of bang for your buck. Or do you? Using plain English ensures that people will be clear about your intent and your ideas. It allows people to grasp concepts quickly, to ask better questions and to make smart decisions. [Why "plain" language isn't "boring" language]

Case in Point: Here’s a great example from Chris Brogan & Julien Smith’s Impact Equation: “Nike said, ‘Just do it.’ It didn’t say, ‘Execute and energize your peak performance.’”

Word Choice Tip: Find the words that paint the clearest verbal picture of your idea. Here’s some advice on how to create more impact with stronger verbs (not just the first one the thesaurus offers up) and increase clarity with effective adjectives.

Of course, sometimes you need to use jargon or technical terms to establish yourself as a qualified person. Don’t overdo it – that can signal insecurity or ego. Sprinkling a few well-placed big words or technical terms correctly can help you establish credibility with the audience.

Case in Point: Here’s how the Economist explained the role of the “microbiome”, the 100 trillion bacteria that live inside all of us. It might be hard for some of us to care about the microbiome if it were explained in highly technical talk. The writer uses scientific lingo sparingly to tell us plainly why we should care those little bugs: “A disrupted microbiome has been associated with a lengthening list of problems: obesity and its opposite, malnutrition; diabetes; atherosclerosis and heart disease… This matters because it suggests doctors have been looking in the wrong place for explanations of these diseases. It also suggests a whole new avenue for treatment. If an upset biome causes illness, settling it down might effect a cure.”

Word Choice Tip: Here's some advice on creating more descriptive content.

Today, honor Mr. Roget by focusing on word choice. Use these tactics to try some new words on for size.