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Free thinking: Out of the mouths of babes


We've a lot to learn from children about the simplicity of language, so use those high brow 'impressive' phrases in your next report or presentation at your peril. As Martin Shovel explains, less is definitely more.


In the Marx brothers' film, Duck Soup, there's a scene in which Rufus T. Firefly (played by Groucho Marx) is handed a treasury department report while attending his first ever cabinet meeting as leader of the fictional country of Freedonia.

When asked if he finds the report clear, Firefly replies, "Clear? Huh! Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report." He then turns to his secretary and instructs him to "run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can't make head nor tail out of it."

Joking aside, research by Eleanor Rosch, and others, confirms that Firefly’s instincts were sound – because the way children learn to use language can indeed teach us adults a great deal about how to create engaging and memorable communications.

"Good communicators use more image words than other people – we can 'see' what they mean."

Martin Shovel, co-director of CreativityWorks

Back to basics

Children begin their voyage into language at what linguists call the basic level – this is the level at which they name and categorize the things in the world around them. An example of a basic level concept is the word 'dog'. When talking to a child it feels natural to point and say "there's a dog". Pointing at the same creature and saying "there's a mammal," just wouldn't feel right. To a child, a category like 'mammal' is far too abstract. What could a child possibly see or touch that would help them understand that dogs and whales are both mammals?

At the opposite end of the comprehension spectrum, pointing and saying "there's an American Hairless Terrier" would feel strange too – it's simply too specific to be meaningful to a child. Categories of things in the world that are meaningful to children tend to be sandwiched somewhere in the middle between very general categories and very specific ones – and it's easy to forget that this holds good for us adults too.

At this basic, or middle level of understanding things are perceived as having a similar overall shape. The category 'dog', for example, plays down the differences between particular breeds of dog and instead emphasizes what they have in common with each other. The idea of a creature with four legs, a tail, a wet nose and a loud bark enables a child to see and experience directly what makes individual dogs so similar to each other.

The power of prototypes

Good communicators use more image words than other people – we can 'see' what they mean. Basic level words are image words and each one conjures up a mental image that reflects its entire category. Within a category there will be some examples that are considered more representative of the category than others. Linguists call these more representative or best examples of a category 'prototype'.

For instance, if I say the word 'tree' to an English person, they'll probably picture something like an oak tree. A Scandinavian might see a fir tree, whereas a tropical islander might see a palm tree. These prototypical variations reflect social and cultural differences between people, and this suggests that pitching your message at the basic level can also be an advantage when talking to a diverse group of individuals.

"Have the courage to use more basic level words and concepts than you usually do."

Words at work

The workplace is full of difficult-to-understand messages that are either too abstract or too specialized. Making an effort to introduce more basic level words and concepts offers a way of overcoming these difficulties. It's interesting to note that a list of the characteristics of basic level words and concepts can also be read as a recipe for creating engaging and memorable communications: 

Most of our knowledge is organized at the basic level – and more sophisticated knowledge is built upon it.

  • They are the first words we learned as children, which means they are quickly and easily understood.
  • They can be used in neutral contexts – compare, for example, 'there's a dog on the grass' with 'there's a mammal on the grass'.T
  • hey are simple – they tend to be the shortest and most commonly used words we know.
  • They produce mental images.
  • They are more memorable.

So next time you're working on a presentation (or indeed a feature for have the courage to use more basic level words and concepts than you usually do. After all, if an intelligent layperson can't follow the gist of what you're saying, chances are some of your specialist colleagues will find themselves struggling too.

About the author

Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a company that specializes in helping organisations and individuals get their message across more effectively. Find out more by visiting

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