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How to Avoid Barry Humphries' Fatal Flaw

Tracey James - Friday, August 30, 2019

Barry Humphries' Fatal Flaw - Words

I recently read Barry Humphries’ autobiography 'My Life as Me'. It’s a rollicking, spell-binding read if you can ignore the fatal flaw: obscure, convoluted words. I nearly gave up. Discover how the right words matter, especially in marketing, and 6 fast ways to choose the right ones, every time.   

Do you know these? 

(Image above: credit The Guardian). I thought I had a reasonable vocab, but had an online dictionary open the whole time. It was driving me nuts and slowing a great story to a crawl.  Humphries was putting up hurdles on every page or so. 

Here are some of the words he lobbed into just the first chapter;  I'm calling them 'Humphries Hurdles'.

How many do you know - or am I dumber than I thought? 

  • Inimical – hostile or antagonistic
  • Humunculus - a small human or humanoid
  • Pullulate - to breed or spread quickly
  • Ventripotent – having a large belly or girth
  • Amanuensis – a literary or artistic assistant
  • Impetiginous – having pimples
  • Extirpate - to remove or eradicate.

With Humphries, I found many of these popping up more than once throughout the book. 

It seemed he had no simple way to describe the simplest of concepts - like a shadowy hallway (he used 'tenebrous') and the words he chose gave no hint of meaning. In fact, many sounded like other, more common words, throwing me right off the track.     

What was the point? 

Why would Humphries risk driving his audience away, when there are simpler, clearer words?  

Does he just want to show off his prodigious intellect and vocabulary? Or put his readers in their places, prostrate at the feet of a master wordsmith? I suspect both.

Perhaps he sees himself as the Vladimir Nabokov of his generation. Nabokov was famous for using obscure words, and even made up some of his own, which Humphries would doubtless call 'neologisms' (new words). 

Humphries writes, ‘I have indulged a lifelong taste for the sesquipedalian, that unerring giveaway of the Provincial.’

With this admission, he’s lobbed in another unintelligible term, this one meaning a fascination with clunky, obscure words. (Oh, really?) He’s also having a lend of us, since a 'provincial' lacks urban polish or refinement. Humphries clearly lacks neither.

Good writing is clear 

Good writing is clear, precise and compact - especially in marketing.

The use of convoluted structures and obscure words has no place here. You want your readers to get the point quickly, without the tedious legwork that literary critics swoon over.

You want your audience to focus on the message, not on your impressive vocab. It's about them, not how clever you are. 

The 6 Rules of good writing

These are some rules for good writing that will help you avoid any 'Humphries Hurdles.'       

1. Talk straight

Don’t mince words. Be direct.

Accept that you might offend a few people, but be true to yourself. Express an opinion or take a stand. You can’t be thought-provoking or controversial or make an impact if you try to please everyone. Thought leaders are fearless and speak with conviction, passion and with no fear. 

2. Keep it simple

Use short sentences and simple words.

Remember less is more. Cut out unnecessary words and keep sentence structure simple. Every sentence must inform or entertain. If you think that using obscure words and technical jargon gives your writing authority, think again. It won't; it's like burying your readers in treacle.   

3. Toss out the clichés

Clichés are tired writing too; using them is like spraying the reader with chloroform.

Consider this: ‘We had to think outside the box and make a paradigm shift to come up with a win-win for everyone at the end of the day, without leaving money on the table. That took 110% effort.’ Yawn.

4. Use short words 

You want your words to engage your audience.

In particular, use simple Anglo-Saxon words; they’re much shorter and stronger than Latin or Greek ones. Think about the impact of 'crash' versus 'collision', 'cut out' versus 'eliminate' (or extirpate!) and 'show' versus 'demonstrate'.     

As George Orwell said in Politics and the English Language: 'Never use a long word where a short one will do. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.'  Good advice, I think.

5. Show, don’t tell

You want to evoke feelings and cause people to take action. So, use imagery and appeal to all of their senses.

You don't have to be flowery or long-winded, either. Take author, Graham Greene. Said to be 'born edited', he wrote with such precision, his books were exceptionally thin.

Here's how he describes a small apartment in 'The Honorary Consul': ‘… there was hardly space for a bed, a dressing table, two chairs, a basin and a douche. You had to fight your way between them as though they were passengers in a crowded subway.’

No Latin, no Greek no obscure words - but a crystal clear image.

6. Be precise  

The great Sol Stein (master wordsmith and author of 'Stein on Writing') talks about the meaning and resonance of words, and the respect they show for the reader's intelligence.

These may not be evident in airport novels or chicklit but they're critical in marketing, especially in crowded marketplaces. In an elevator pitch, for instance, every word counts - because you have no time to use many. 

Summing up

Good writing raises questions and provokes the reader to think, so don't be prescriptive, be provocative.

The rules are simple but it takes practice to apply them.

Read this wise advice from Earnest Hemingway:

‘It wasn't by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.’  

Additional Reading

Kim Brebach is the true writer at Technoledge.

He's written fiction and non-fiction books and reads constantly on effective writing. He's my writing coach and here are his suggestions:  

Orwell’s six rules for Writing
The Obscure Words of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
Obscure words that everybody needs to know

Tracey James
Chief Executive

I used to be a Biotech researcher but got sick of acid holes in my clothing. After switching to selling the equipment I'd used in the lab, I discovered marketing and loved it. I've been marketing technologies ever since. I still love it.

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