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How communicating in a simple and concrete manner boosts effectiveness

What psychology reveals about simplified communication and it's effectiveness for customer service.

By Richard Shotton, Guest post

Last updated November 1, 2022

Ever been on a train and wondered what the announcer is talking about?

Whether it’s adding in redundant words (“personal belongings”) or using arcane terminology (“alighting” rather than getting off), the style confuses rather than clarifies.

I’ve often been puzzled by the language. Why so convoluted?

But having read a paper by the Princeton psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer I might have stumbled on the reason.

Oppenheimer argues that people often artificially complicate their language to appear more intelligent. That’s not speculation on his part. He surveyed 110 undergraduates and asked whether they “had ever changed the words in an academic essay to make the essay sound more valid or intelligent by using complicated language?’

Nearly 9 out of 10 admitted they had. It seems that train operators aren’t alone in their love of complexity.

Ironically, further work by Oppenheimer suggests that this attempt at personal image management backfires. In his study, the psychologist gave participants one of two versions of a dissertation abstract: one was left in its original complex state, while the other was simplified, and all the unnecessarily complicated words were replaced with simpler synonyms. (Or should I just say simpler alternatives?).

Everyone was then asked to rate the intelligence of the dissertation author. Those who read the simplified version rated the author as 10 per cent more intelligent than readers of the original text. Even though the content was essentially the same–if the style was unnecessarily complicated, it backfired.

So, if you’re training your staff, make sure they know this. Too many adopt an unnecessarily complicated way of communicating once they arrive at work. If they’re aware of the research showing that it reflects badly on them, hopefully they’ll stop. According to the Zendesk 2022 CX trends report, only 17 per cent of service agents feel extremely satisfied with their training, so there’s an opportunity to improve here.

But that’s not the only advice from psychology that you can apply to call centre scripts and staff. Another related benefit of simplicity is that it often means people speak in a concrete, rather than abstract, way. This tends to be more effective.

In 2020 Jonah Berger from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania analysed 185 recordings of customer calls to a US online clothing retailer. For each call, he recorded the relative frequency of concrete and abstract language.

Berger defined concrete language as words that refer to an actual, tangible, or “real” entity, whereas abstract language captured intangible qualities, ideas, or concepts.

If that sounds a bit vague, I’ll quote an example he gives:

A call centre worker could respond to a caller’s inquiry by saying the package will be arriving:

  • there

  • at their place

  • at their door

The options increase in specificity and imaginability [and concreteness].

After the call was over, Berger asked customers to rate how helpful the employee was on a 4-point scale. He found that customers were significantly more satisfied when the employee used more concrete language. A 6 per cent increase in concreteness was associated with an 9 per cent increase in customer satisfaction.

Berger argues that this boost occurs because customers assume that employees who use more concrete language are listening more intently.

So, these are just two findings that you can apply to your call centre scripts. There are plenty more relevant studies you could use.

In fact, if you want more detail on Oppenheimer’s work you might like to read his original paper. It’s called:
Consequences of erudite vernacular utilised irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly.

Now, if only train announcements were as droll.

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