What makes a speaker a speaker? The simple answer is that he or she uses words to convey meaning. We often focus on the graphics or the delivery or the audience, and don’t get me wrong, all of those things matter. But sometimes, we need to be reminded that our fundamental tool is language. In our world of graphics and technology, a presentation with just words might seem outdated. But according to the book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, “at least a third of TED’s most viewed talks make no use of slides whatsoever.” For today, let’s be reminded of the root and foundation of all presentations, language. And let’s explore two ways we can take our language to the next level.
Pay Attention to Values
Words are value-laden, meaning we assign them positive or negative associations based on our own perceptions and preferences. These are called connotations. Take, for example, the word “dog.” For someone who is highly allergic to dogs, this seemingly simple, three-letter word might have a negative value or connotation. For someone else, however, the word might conjure up entirely positive feelings. First, we all need to be reminded that connotations are individual, not universal. This helps us become more sensitive communicators. Second, even though we can never guess all of the individual ways our audience members will process and assign value to our words, we should still choose words that create the tone we are trying to convey. Author and professor, Richard Norquist gives the following example of how to pay attention to the values in language.
Douglas was careful with his money. He kept his money in a safe place. He bought only the necessities of life. He never borrowed or lent money.
(1) Choose words that show how impressed you are by Douglas’s sense of thrift.
(2) Choose words that make fun of Douglas or pass scorn on him for being such a tightwad.
The example illustrates how word choice can drastically shape audience perception. However, read the initial set of sentences again. It is made up of bland and emotionless language. We don’t feel anything toward Douglas or his tendencies with money. Language that is devoid of value or boring should be avoided.
Paint an Image
The second thing we can do elevate our language is to choose words that create an image. What do we want the audience to see in their “mind’s eye?” And which words will help us paint that picture? In a CBS new interview, author Nicholas Boothman said,
“If you can get an image into someone’s head, it will stay there. Warren Buffett is a genius at this. Recently, he was asked, ‘How do you feel about your job?’ He said, ‘I tap dance to work.’ That’s the kind of language that sticks in your mind and says volumes.”
If Buffett had instead responded to the question with something like, “I like it” or “I really enjoy it,” there would be nothing of great interest there to remember because we can’t “see” anything. The Memory Institute encourages speakers to use visual encoding by “placing emphasis on physical characteristics such as size, shape, and color.” By using words that connect to our senses, specifically our visual input, we enable the audience to remember what they’ve been told because they can “see” it.
For speakers, words are the tools of our trade. And we need to maintain, polish, and update these tools from time to time. We must always remember how much words matter. When we use language creatively and effectively, we become, by definition, better speakers.
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