12.3 Using Effective Language in Public Speaking

At this point, we will make some applications and suggestions about using language as you grow as a public speaker.

First, get in the habit of using “stipulated definitions” with concrete examples (defining operationally). In other words, define your terms for the audience. If you are using jargon, a technical term, a word that has multiple meanings in different contexts, or an often-misunderstood word, you can say at the beginning of the body of your speech, “In this speech I am going to be using the word, “X,” and what I mean by it is…” And then the best way to define a word is with a picture or example of what you mean, and perhaps also an example of what you don’t mean (visual aids can help here). Don’t worry; this is not insulting to most audiences if the word is technical or unfamiliar to them. On the other hand, providing dictionary definitions of common words such as “love” or “loyalty” would be insulting to an audience and pretty boring.

Second, develop specific language. The general semantics movement suggested ways to develop more specific language that reflects the imperfection of our perceptions and the fact that reality changes. You can develop specific language by the following:

  • Distinguishing between individuals and the group (that is, avoid stereotyping). Arab 1 is not Arab 2 is not Arab 3, etc., and none of them are all the Arabs in the world.
  • Specifying time and place of behavior instead of making broad statements. What was a true of a person in 1999 is not necessarily true of the person now.
  • Using names for jobs or roles (“accountants,” “administrative assistants,” “instructors”) instead of “people” or “workers.”
  • Avoid “always/never” language. “Always” and “never” usually do not reflect reality and tend to make listeners defensive.
  • Avoid confusing opinion for fact. If I say, “Forrest Gump is a stupid movie,” I am stating an opinion in the language of fact. If you preface opinions with “I believe,” or “It is my opinion” you will be truthful and gain the appearance of being fair-minded and non-dogmatic. What should be said is “The first time I saw Forrest Gump, I didn’t realize it was a farce, but after I saw it a second time, I understood it better.” This sentence is much more specific and clarifying than “Forrest Gump is a stupid movie.” Using this kind of language also helps make the speaker seem less dogmatic and closed-minded.

Third, personalize your language. In a speech it’s fine to use personal pronouns as opposed to third person. That means “I,” “me,” “we,” “us,” “you,” etc. are often helpful in a speech. It gives more immediacy to the speech. Be careful of using “you” for examples that might be embarrassing. “Let’s say you are arrested for possession of a concealed weapon,” sounds like the audience members are potential criminals.

Finally, develop your vocabulary, but not to show it off. One of the benefits of a college education is that your vocabulary will expand greatly, and it should. A larger vocabulary will give you access to more complicated reading material and allow you to understand the world better. But knowing the meaning of a more complicated word doesn’t mean you have to use it with every audience.

Conclusion

Although the placement of this chapter may seem to indicate that language choices, or what the ancient rhetoricians called “style,” are not as important as other parts of speaking, language choices are important from the very beginning of your speech preparation, even to your research and choice of search terms. Audience analysis will help you to develop language that is clear, vivid, appropriate, credible, and persuasive.

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