Yes, your words matter—just not as much as you think.
That last speaker you heard probably found a way to say something just right. She was so articulate, you thought. Maybe you left considering your own upcoming speaking opportunity, thinking to yourself, “If only I could choose my words so well . . . “
But while word choice can project gravitas, it doesn’t always. It’s hardly just by using sophisticated words that you’ll project sophistication. In fact, overfixating on your words can actually make you stumble. More often than not, becoming a more powerful speaker demands the reverse: Focus less on precisely what you’re going to say, and worry about a few of the subtler fundamentals instead. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind.
AUDIENCES AREN’T LISTENING TO YOUR WORDS
No one is hanging on your every word–not even the most attentive listener in your audience. Cognitively speaking, people don’t listen at the word level. We listen on the thought level–more specifically, at the personalthought level.
In other words, your English professor in that postmodernism course you took in college was on to something: Language is never neutral, objective, or entirely stable. The same words mean different things to different people, and everyone you speak to is subconsciously filtering your words through their own personal biases. To take one of the most common of them, “confirmation bias” may cause someone to interpret what you’re saying in a way that conforms to your prior assumptions. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to being completely misunderstood, it just means your ideas and style of delivery may ultimately matter more than your diction.
FOCUSING ON YOUR WORDS INTERRUPTS YOUR RHYTHM
Overattending to the words you’re using can affect how you sound. Instead of taking natural breaths at the ends of phrases and pausing when you finish your points, you stop suddenly in the middle of your sentences in the hopes of finding that perfect word. This creates a staccato delivery–your rhythm is fragmented, erratic. You project a feeling of hesitation, doubt, and uncertainty.
For example, if you said, “Researchers are trying to find out why some people are [pause] . . . mundane” (definitely not a real study but, hey, I’d want to read it), you were likely trying to find another way to say the word “boring”–and your listeners will suspect as much. Instead of interrupting your rhythm by searching for another option, just go with the first word that comes to mind. Even if it doesn’t perfectly convey your idea, you can always go on to elaborate while maintaining a smooth delivery.
BIG VOCABULARIES CAN BACKFIRE
Mark Twain once said, “Don’t use a $5 word when a 50¢ word will do.”
I once coached an exec at a Fortune 50 company who was on the verge of being fired. Why would he want help with his communication skills at a time like that? One reason was that he was perceived as arrogant, thanks in part to his pinpoint-precise language. He focused on using words that demonstrated how smart he was. “Its efficacy was far from established,” he’d say, instead of, “It didn’t work.” “Efficacy” may not even be a $5 word, but it isn’t a 50¢ word, either.
Remember, your goal is to make your audience understand the power of your ideas, not be dazzled by the precision of your vocabulary. That could lead you to sound pretentious, or as though you’re burying your uncertainty under a heap of impenetrable language.
DON’T GET LOST IN TRANSLATION
Finally, searching for that perfect word is a futile endeavor if you’re speaking to a multicultural audience.
Growing up in the bilingual city of Montreal, I learned quickly that you couldn’t translate exact words; you had to translate meaning. For example, “board of directors” in French translates to conseil d’administration. If you tried to translate the words instead of the meaning, you’d obviously create some confusion.
What’s more, meaning is often dependent on cultural context even within languages. In his classic book Cultural Literacy,” E.D. Hirsch, Jr., explained that our background assumptions (“schemata”) shape our understanding of certain words. Hirsh offers this passage by way of example:
When Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met in the parlor of a modest house at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, to work out the terms for the surrender of Lee’s army of Northern Virginia, a great chapter in American life came to a close, and a great new chapter began. These men were bringing the Civil War to its virtual finish.
Hirsch explains that in order to make sense of it, “One must integrate the passage . . . with schematic background information about what a general is, what civil war entails, what surrender means, and so on.” That’s obvious enough: frame of reference matters, as the writer John McPhee has also pointed out. But the point Hirsch was making is that the more specific your words are, the more you’re likely to amplify problems involving cultural contexts. Greater linguistic precision tends to narrow the frame of reference. So whatever you may lose in specificity, you’ll make up in increased clarity and understanding across cultures.
There’s no doubt that words matter when you speak, but they probably don’t matter as much as you may think. Our word choice is one of the first things we tend to focus on when we’re nervous about getting our messages across, but that can quickly prove counterproductive. Staying in rhythm and focusing on getting ideas across may be a surer approach to being understood.