Years ago I was writing a white paper for a company. "We want it to sound like something from the Harvard Business Review," they said. There was no data, no explicit research, just their opinion on a technical topic.

I wrote and turned in a draft. They wanted changes. It wasn't complex or sophisticated enough. "We want it to be aimed at CEOs and CFOs," they said. So I went through and in a few spots tortured the language, added strings of meaningless but important-sounding terms, and unnecessarily complicated the syntax. In short, it was now a pretentious mess.

The company was delighted.

Many people--in business, academia, and life--have some peculiar notions about communicating.

The MIT Sloan big data blog was a great example in data analytic experts who are taught to "write in a way most people cannot understand." Being steeped in academic phrasing, they become incapable of making business leaders understand the importance of their findings.

The danger in communications goes beyond buzzwords--the terms that keep insiders in and outsiders out, as I once heard a chemistry professor say--and extends to structuring what they have to say as barriers to the hoi polloi.

People from many backgrounds want to appear smart, learned, and informed. Sadly, that becomes more important than what they nominally want to get across. Such people will use convoluted syntax, grasp at multi-syllabic words they might not ordinarily use, and generally sacrifice content to form. What they want to communicate becomes of secondary importance, like Alan Jay Lerner's French who "don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly."

But humans are driven by story. We even take historic events and push them this way and that so they fit into a neat narrative. We're all suckers for a great tale. We use stories all the time to get out of trouble, meet potential romantic partners, lobby for change, choose political candidates, or sell a business deal.

As much as we may long to be admired and even held in awe, it's better to emphasize the story and actually get something done. Here are some tips to keep your story straight and to avoid pretension.

Remember the point

In a story, stuff happens. The hero vanquishes the monster or dies a brave death. Adventurers look for a lost treasure. Someone tries to find their way home ... or develop a cure or raise money for a business. There's a point to telling the story, and the point is your objective. If the story doesn't convey the point, it's a waste of words

It's always about people

Don't get too abstract. No matter what the supposed topic, you're ultimately talking about things that affect people. No one cares whether your widget is better than the other ones. But they might care if it makes their lives easier, saves them money or time, or otherwise affects them in a practical way. That could get them to buy or invest or work for you.

Beginning, middle, and end

Don't wander around lost in the marsh. You're on a quest and, so, must travel some kind of road. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end because the structure is a proven way to get from one point to another. Miss part and you've removed important planks from your bridge across the chasm. Understand the journey and make your writing and speaking a mechanism to take your audience along.

Exposition over ego

If you tell a story and no one understands it, were you standing in a forest by yourself all along? Forget about fancy phrasing or dazzling people with your erudition. Use plain words and push your ego out of the way. Put yourself at the service of what you're trying to accomplish.