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A win vs. a negative net present value.

Christopher Murphy


I’ve been thinking a great deal about the use of language, how it shapes the perception of a brand and how I can improve mine.

I don’t mean my habit of swearing¹, I mean my habit – acquired in academia? – of defaulting to complex language when simple language would communicate more effectively.

My teaching style centres around a show don’t tell approach, so here’s an example.

Earlier, while I was writing about the cost of advertising and its role in promoting your business, I wrote the following:

It pays to experiment and refine your advertising strategy over time, weighing up your return on investment. Inevitably, some of your advertising will result in a positive net present value and some of it will result in a negative net present value.

What was I thinking?

This language might look smart – “I know what net present value is!” – but it’s really quite obtuse (or, to use a simpler word: stupid).

The term ‘negative net present value’ might look sophisticated, but what it means is ‘a loss’, and – to be frank – many readers will be at a loss understanding the point I’m trying to make.²

It’s really quite embarrassing to admit this, but I think this point is so important to hammer home, that I’ll happily embarrass myself to underline it.

If your writing requires effort on the part of the reader to decipher you need to revise your writing and simplify it.

Good writing is clearly written and easy to understand. That doesn’t mean it’s not challenging. You can articulate complex arguments using simple words. (And, vice versa.)

The mistake a great deal of writers make – especially academics – is they over-complicate matters through the use of intentionally unintelligible language.

Why on earth would any do that?

I often find with academics that they do it for one of two reasons:

  1. They’re engaged in an environment where ‘this is the language that’s expected’. Their logic is: “If everyone writes in a particularly over-wrought way, then I must write that way.” (No, you mustn’t.)³
  2. They lack confidence in their thinking, so they mask the weakness of their arguments with a multitude of multi-syllable words in the hope that their discombobulation (3) will divert attention from their stupidity.

Truly intelligent people understand the importance of clear communication, they strive to make things easier to understand, not harder.

As Einstein famously put it:

The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.

As Alice Calaprice notes in Einstein’s General Theory of Writing: “[Einstein] wrote the way he would have spoken, without pretensions.”

This is what the best teachers do. They put learners first, communicating as clearly and unpretentiously as possible. Do that and you maximise the opportunities for all, writing in an inclusive way.


  1. Try as I might, to curb my swearing, I’ve yet to manage even a few minutes minus what my mother calls ‘choice language’. I suspect I’ll always swear. I’m enthusiastic about what I do, and that enthusiasm manifests itself in frequent exclamations: “That’s fscking incredible!” or “That’s a fscking disgrace!”

    One thing I did do recently, however, was use Apple’s system-level text replacement feature to map fuck → fsck and all its attendant variations.

    Given my fsck journal has existed for seven years, I’m surprised I didn’t think of this sooner.

  2. Investopedia: “A positive net present value indicates that the projected earnings generated by a project or investment - in present dollars - exceeds the anticipated costs, also in present dollars.”

    You can, of course, use £, €, ¥….

  3. This is a case of falling into a trap because ‘everyone else is doing it’. As I’ve noted before, there are no rules.

    In academia, it might seem that there are ‘rules’ like this. However, some of the most respected academics are successful precisely because they’re ‘breaking the rules’ and writing in a clear and easy to understand manner. (Cal Newport springs to mind, for example.)

About the author…

A designer, writer and speaker based in Belfast, Christopher mentors purpose-driven businesses, helping them to launch and thrive. He’s currently building designtrack, an education-focused startup.

As a design strategist, Christopher has worked with companies, large and small, to help drive innovation, drawing on his 25+ years of experience working with clients including: Adobe, EA and the BBC.


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