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Put the Cookies on the Bottom Shelf!

I don’t know where I first heard that statement: “Put the cookies on the bottom shelf.” It certainly didn’t originate with me, but I have claimed it as my own because it’s a good rule of thumb for anyone who is trying to communicate. The gist of its meaning is, Whether speaking or writing, do so in such a way that the youngest, simplest person can understand what you’re trying to say.

Too many people don’t do that. For whatever reason, they make things complicated and difficult to understand when there’s no need for it. Sometimes I guess they do it to impress the readers or listeners with their supposedly greater “smarts.” Well, people aren’t stupid; they get the message. Such a writer or speaker is a blowhard who thinks he’s a know-it-all. In reality, there are no know-it-alls. As Will Rogers often said, “We’re all ignorant–just on different subjects.” And even on the subjects we do know more about, we’ll never know it all.

When I was a little kid, I always wanted something (especially sweets) to eat between meals, but my mother had a way of redirecting (maybe I should say “forcing”) my appetite into different directions. For some reason that I couldn’t understand, she didn’t like my getting into the chocolate drops that she bought in bulk at Miller’s Department Store in Knoxville and put in the freezer. (I used to sneak into the freezer, get one drop from each of the many boxes, and think that she’d never notice. But when I did that time after time, she did notice!) But she never complained when I dug up a turnip from the garden, washed it off at the pump house, peeled it with my pocket knife, and ate it raw.

Another ploy she had was to store the healthful bananas in a drawer beneath the refrigerator. I could get those easily. But she put the chocolate chip cookies in a jar on top of the refrigerator! Only after I grew taller and a little smarter did I learn that I could climb onto the stool she kept beside the refrigerator and, by tiptoeing and stretching as high as I could, tip the cookie jar toward me, and get that sugary treat.

It might work (for a while) to put the cookies on the highest shelf or atop the refrigerator if you’re trying to keep junk food from the kids, but it just doesn’t work if your goal is to communicate. To communicate effectively, you have to keep things simple. If it’s complicated and complex, write or say it in a way that everyone can understand. If the most simple-minded person can understand it, then you know you’ve reached everyone. But if you use terms and phrases and sentence structures that are complex and convoluted, you lose all but the smartest. In fact, you might not even communicate to the one smartie in the crowd.

You put the cookies on the bottom shelf by using simple words, short sentences, and simple sentence structure. Make every word count. Say the most you can with the fewest words and the simplest words. And when you have to decide whether to use a short word or a long word, opt for the shorter one.

Consider, for example, some of the greatest writing in history. Seventy-three percent of the words used in Psalm 23 are one-syllable words. In the Lord’s Prayer, it’s 76 percent. In the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, an amazing 80 percent of the words are of one syllable. The same holds true for the greatest of the secular writers. For example, analyse the Gettysburg Address some time. In fact, as Haddon Robinson pointed out, the biggest things in life are one-syllable words: “life, death, peace, war, dawn, day, night, hope, love, home.”

So if you want to communicate effectively with the greatest number of people (rather than confuse or impress), “put the cookies on the bottom shelf.”

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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