Don’t Dumb It Down
I was drawn into an interesting discussion a couple days ago – one that concerns me as both a writer and a speaker. Indeed, it also interests me as a reader and as one who enjoys listening to speeches.
Let me clarify: I enjoy reading quality writing and experiencing compelling presentations.
The question, posted on a Linkedin discussion group was simple: Do you use large words in your speeches? My first internal reaction was What do you consider to be large words? The post goes on to quote from a piece by Peter Giblett, titled, “It’s not the Size of the Words That Counts.”
“Do you have trouble being understood? How we speak and how we write is all influenced by the words that we select and use. Many people seem to go out of the way not to be understood and there are two duel sins, failure to understand the right word…”
My next reaction was: In a column about using the right word(s), one would think that the writer would know that it’s “dual” sins, and not “duel” sins – unless he was talking about Aaron Burr. He wasn’t, and yes, the writing, editing and word usage in this piece only got worse. You can judge for yourself.
That quibble aside, it’s hard to argue against the premise that It’s not the size of the word that counts. That premise also seems to mesh, rather than collide, with a truism I’ve heard a gazillion times: Know Your Audience. As this maxim is a basic commandment of Toastmasters International and other speaking groups, it’s often written, “Know Thy Audience.”
Of course, it’s good to know thy audience, but I also firmly believe that it’s equally important to know thyself. And yes, I don’t usually speak or write in antiquated terms, so let me rephrase this aphorism: As a speaker, you should have a strong sense of the audience, but you should also have a strong sense of self.
Is there anything inherently wrong with using large words in your speeches? No. But…should you rewrite your speeches with a collection of dictionaries and thesauruses close at hand? No.
As a communicator, it should go without saying that I want my message to connect with my audience. The words that I choose should augment this connection, not detract from it. If I use a lot of “large words”, could that foster more distance than connection? Yes, and no.
Speakers should be true to themselves. I enjoy using words both precisely and creatively. Even when ad-libbing, I want to speak with a sense of eloquence. Note, I did not say “elegance”, although more power to those who truly have that quality as well. The key is to be impressive without trying too hard to impress. Let me explain.
A speaker should not have to rely on a thesaurus to try to find words that will (supposedly) impress an audience. It would be like writing poetry with a rhyming dictionary. I think it’s important to employ words and ideas that one is very conversant with. By the same token, one should not have to “dumb down” a speech because it’s supposedly too intellectual, or has too many fancy words. Be yourself…
…but do have a sense of your audience. If you’re not speaking to a group of people within your own industry (or to a specific, more esoteric, interest group), be aware of jargon or other expressions that your audience may not recognize. It’s also not wise, if you really want your message to resonate, to tell inside tales and jokes when you’re not inside anymore. It is fine to bring people into your world, but you should make your world as inviting, comfortable and interesting as possible.
The simple truth is that words are very powerful, and choosing the right ones can help our message truly resonate with our audience. Of course, choosing the wrong ones can derail our messages and even alienate our audience. So, how do we know which ones are the right ones? Well, we don’t always, but…
the key is to be authentic. Be genuine, be yourself and while doing so, also respect the time, commitment and intelligence of your audience. You don’t have to search for those million-dollar words, and you also shouldn’t throw out words because they are supposedly too “large.”
In other words, don’t use others’ words: Use your own, and don’t dumb them down!
Matt Goldberg, the author of five books and writer/presenter of dozens of speeches, is also available to help you craft the article, speech (and even book) that will help you connect with your intended audience. Contact him via matt@tipofthegoldberg for all inquiries.
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