“keep it simple”isn’t just some meaningless slogan

In 2006 a Princeton psychologist published an paper involving a study he conducted regarding simplicity of words used. The article Consequence of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity reported on the use of complicated language and big words as to the impression formed by the person reading them. His study concluded that people whouse big words and complicated language simple words would be sufficient are seen as less intelligent then those who use a more basic vocabulary. It turned out that when people read the simpler version of two writing they actually rate the writer’s intelligence higher then those who use big words and more complex sentences. Oppenheimer suspected that people link intelligence with simpler language because it was more easily understood by them.

That is consistent with the research which shows when lawyers or witnesses make the subject complex, jurors understanding tends to fade. When they don’t understand fully, the jurors don’t blame themselves. They blame the speaker for not being intelligent enough to explain themselves. As they interpret the testimony as "garbly gook" they feel the speaker "doesn’t know what he is talking about" and they stop listening or trying to understand. They also resent the fact that they don’t understand and hold it against the speaker.

A lawyer friend, who has spent many years in conducting CLE seminars as well as professional teaching, sent me a Op-Ed by Charles M. Slow published in the New York Times published September 4, 2009. Slow was critical of President Obama for his lack of simplicity in his speeches and talks about health care. He states:

"Let’s hope that someone among these Ivy League oracles will convince the president to come down from his cloud and speak to the Costco constituency. As we witnessed during his presidential campaign, he can have a hard time speaking to everyday people in everyday language

His opponents don’t have that problem. Death panels. Death books. Taxpayer dollars for abortion. Kill Grandma. Take away choice. Is some of this rhetoric blatantly silly? Yes, but also brilliantly simple."

Pam Almquist wrote an article in Digital Web Magazine Keep it Simple Stupid http://www.digital-web.com/articles/keep_it_simple_stupid/ She points out that

"The expressions ‘Keep it simple stupid,’ ‘ Kill your darlings’ and ‘Less is more’ all pinpoint the fact that simplicity is important. Simplicity lasts. Simplicity is necessary in order to properly convey any idea. In a complex world, simplicity is important…"

We know from the studies done on the Reptilian brain, that the reptile fears the complex because safety and protection need rules. If there are no simple rules to guide us, then we are potentially unsafe and unprotected. When we makes things complicated we are inviting the primitive brain to reject what we are saying.

In her article, Almquist rightly notes:

"When you see several brochures, which one are you more likely to pick up- the brochure with lots of words written in tiny print, or the brochure with a striking background and only a few key words? The more simple the message, the more impact it can have – and the more likely it will be to attract someone’s attention."

Political consultant James Carville has noted that in politics the need is to keep the story simple and repeat it often. Simplicity, relevance and repetition, he says are universal rules of communication. Relevance means that your message has meaning to those to whom you are speaking. Simplicity is based on the premise that the less you say, the more they hear.

Singer Van Morrison says in his song Keep it Simple

"Whoa we got to get back to something simple just to save yourselves
Well got to get back to something simple just to save yourselves
Well you got to keep it simple, keep it simple just to – and that’s that"

We lawyers tend to think that when we use big words and complex sentences we sound like we are intelligent and knowledgeable. The opposite is true. We lawyers tend to think that we need to deal in technical detail because that shows we are informed and we are right. The jury ends up bored and confused. So what is the right approach? Discover the underlying issues that mean something to the jurors. Issues they see as impacting them. Cast the issues in a moral stance of right, wrong and especially, protection of the jurors, community or society. Reduce the concept to simple, clear and understandable themes. Never allow yourself to be distracted by the witness or defense attorney diverting to matters that aren’t the key issues and don’t have significance to the jurors. Too often lawyers engage in examinations or testimony that is of significance only to them, the witness and perhaps the judge, but is boring as well as meaningless to the jury.

So, my advice to trial lawyers is: Keep it short, simple and relevant.

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