Using Language Effectively

Choosing Clear Words and Phrasing

Choose clear words and phrasing in your speech by fully understanding your topic through delimiting the question and defining key terms.

Learning Objectives

Analyze your speech topic until you fully understand the question and key terms

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • How well do you know your topic ? Make sure you fully understand everything that goes into your topic as you begin to craft the specific wording of your speech.
  • Start by delimiting the question, that is, fully parsing out exactly what question you’re answering by giving your speech. Even if you don’t think there is a specific question, your speech topic exists for some purpose. What purpose does your speech fulfill?
  • From there, define your key terms of your speech.

Key Terms

  • delimit: To mark or fix the limits of.
  • baseline: A datum used as the basis for calculation or for comparison.
  • dissect: To analyze an idea in detail by separating it into its parts.

Choosing Clear Words and Phrasing

President Ronald Reagan gives a campaign speech.

Using Clear Words: It’s important to convey your message to the audience in the clearest way possible.

How Well Do You Fully Understand Your Topic?

You know that you have to write a speech, and you may or may not have been given a specific topic about which to write. Easy as pie, right? Hold on there–take a step back for a moment and ask yourself: how well do you fully understand your topic? It’s important to take that step back and look at your speech from a distanced perspective.

Looking at your speech from a distance allows you to dissect exactly how you can begin to tackle the specific wording of your speech. You want to make sure that your speech is easy to understand and follow, so it’s imperative to choose clear words and phrasing. When you think of your speech in delimiting the question and defining key terms, you have a great starting point for how to begin selecting the clearest words and phrasing.

Delimit the Question

What question does your speech address? You might be thinking, “Wait a minute. My speech isn’t even answering a question. I’m just supposed to talk about a business plan I’ve made for a fake company for an assignment in my entrepreneurship class. ”

Here’s the thing: your speech actually is answering a question, that question being, “Why should you invest in my business? ” (however fake that business may be).

The importance of identifying the broader question to which your speech will speak not only helps your audience understand your point, but it pinpoints exactly how you need to tailor your speech to your audience. Essentially, when you take the steps to delimit your question (your speech’s purpose), you help to outline exactly how your audience can follow your line of reasoning.

When you delimit the question, first think about the purpose of your speech. This will usually point you in the direction of the broader question. From there, list step-by-step how you plan to address that question. Set the parameters for your rhetoric for your audience.

Define Key Terms

Even though your speech could be about something that is otherwise common knowledge to your audience, it is helpful to also define key terms for them as you go along in your speech. Even though you may have outlined your plan of attack by delimiting the question, it also helps to explain exactly what you’re talking about to your audience. When you establish your key terms by defining them for your audience, you set a baseline standard of understanding for your audience, thus eliminating any confusion.

When you delimited your question, were there any key words used in that question? Define those terms as necessary. You’ll want to source your definitions appropriately by looking up those key terms from reliable sources. In doing so, you indicate to your audience that not only do you fully understand the ways in which to approach your argument, but that you understand your topic.

Do be careful: you don’t want to “dumb down” your speech by defining every single key term throughout your speech. Make sure you only highlight and define those words that are necessary for establishing a foundation of your speech topic.

Choosing Vivid Words

Don’t lose audience interest by having a boring speech; use descriptive language to build interest and make your points more creatively.

Learning Objectives

Use creative, vivid language in your speech to combat monotony

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Descriptive language in your speech builds interest and allows you to immerse your audience in a sensory experience.
  • Use simile and metaphor as a way to add descriptive language and wording into your speech. Make your points more compelling by painting pictures with words in the minds of your audience members.
  • Tell your audience exactly how you want them to digest the information in your speech by using a variety of process words.

Key Terms

  • metaphor: The use of a word or phrase to refer to something that it isn’t, invoking a direct similarity between the word or phrase used and the thing described, but without the words like or as, which would imply a simile.
  • simile: A figure of speech in which one thing is compared to another, in the case of English generally using like or as.
  • monotony: Tedium as a result of repetition or a lack of variety.

Choose Vivid Language and Wording


William Shakespeare: When lacking vivid words, Shakespeare created his own. He invented over 1,700 words and phrases in his body of works.

Conquer Monotony

“The monotonous speaker not only drones along in the same volume and pitch of tone but uses always the same emphasis, the same speed, the same thoughts—or dispenses with thought altogether. Monotony: the cardinal and most common sin of the public speaker. ” – J. Berg Esenwein, The Art of Public Speaking

The quickest way to lose your audience is to be boring. Avoid the “sin of monotony,” as Esenwein puts it, by using vivid language and imagery to build interest in your speech.

Writing Descriptively

Think of your favorite food or meal, or perhaps your favorite place to visit. What does it smell like? Look like? Taste like? What sounds are characteristic of your favorite vacation spot? When you use vivid, descriptive language in your speech, you immerse your audience in a sensory experience that transports them from their seats and into the experience you craft with your words.

Writing descriptively is more than just using “pretty” language to dress up your speech; in fact, you want to be careful that your speech doesn’t come across as poetry. Using descriptive language can actually help get your points across more pointedly to your audience than by simply presenting hard facts and data. Descriptive language engages your audience’s imagination, which holds their attention and adds both interest and complexity to your speech.

There are a variety of ways to add descriptive language to your speech, which are described below.

Similes and Metaphors

Two of the easiest techniques to add descriptive wording to your speech are simile and metaphor. They essentially achieve the same goal: comparing one thing to another in likeness. In a simile, the comparison is made by using the words “like” or “as. ” Metaphors, on the other hand, usually compare things directly by using the verb “to be. ” These comparisons help to paint a picture in the minds of your audience. For speechwriters, metaphor and simile are like the brushstrokes of an artist, the notes of a melody, or the choreography of a dance — they demonstrate an artistry with language.

These comparisons may be alike or dissimilar. The use of opposing ideas and imagery can illustrate bolder points while similar comparisons bolster the strength of an idea or image.

Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, is a master of metaphor. Take, for example, his poem, Litany:

You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine. You are the dew on the morning grass and the burning wheel of the sun. You are the white apron of the baker, and the marsh birds suddenly in flight. However, you are not the wind in the orchard, the plums on the counter, or the house of cards. And you are certainly not the pine-scented air. There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air. It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge, maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head, but you are not even close to being the field of cornflowers at dusk. And a quick look in the mirror will show that you are neither the boots in the corner nor the boat asleep in its boathouse. It might interest you to know, speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world, that I am the sound of rain on the roof. I also happen to be the shooting star, the evening paper blowing down an alley and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table. I am also the moon in the trees and the blind woman’s tea cup. But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife. You are still the bread and the knife. You will always be the bread and the knife, not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.

Process Words

Process words tell someone how to process a set of information. In a speech, it’s important to vary your vocabulary so that you don’t end up repeating yourself. There are several process words that get at the basic six ways of processing information: comparing, criticizing, describing, discussing, evaluating, and explaining. By using synonyms of these words as you craft your speech, you not only tell your audience how to process the information you’re presenting, you also build interest by using a varied vocabulary.

Choosing Appropriate Words

Consider the style, tone, and sections of your speech to determine the most appropriate words and phrases.

Learning Objectives

Choose appropriate words that can be used to section your speech

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Section your speech into parts arranged in a logical order, with each section having a specific focus or purpose.
  • Transition between sections with phrases and words that connect your ideas.
  • Avoid weasel phrases in order to keep your speech credible and authoritative.

Key Terms

  • weasel phrases: Phrases that often precede statements and that lack substantive quality.

Choosing Appropriate Words

A valedictorian gives his speech.

Appropriate Words: When choosing the appropriate words for your speech, it helps to fully understand the context of your speech, including the audience and venue.

The Style and Tone of Speaking

Consider for a few minutes exactly where, when, and how you will be giving your speech. Consider the tone and style of your speech. From there, think about how you will structure your speech, given these various contexts. Thinking about these parameters can give you an idea of the most appropriate language to use in the wording of your speech.

Sectioning Your Speech

As you outline your argument, you will want to break your speech into sections. A speech consists, broadly, of an Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. However, as you begin to highlight your thesis and specific supporting points and examples, you will create additional sections to your speech. This is particularly helpful if you have a long speech because sectioning makes the information easier for your audience to process.

Each section of your speech should have a specific purpose or focus. As you move from one section to the next, you will want to make sure you transition smoothly between each section.

Useful Phrases for Transitions and Sectioning Your Ideas

  • Generalizing: as a general rule, as a rule, in general, generally, normally, on the whole, usually
  • Explaining: in other words, that is, this means that
  • Express likelihood: it is certain that, there is no doubt that, I am confident that, certainly, definitely, clearly, undoubtedly, presumably, will, is, should, it is probable that, it is likely that, probably, can, may, it is possible that, could, might, might possibly, possibly, perhaps
  • Express doubt: it is doubtful that, maybe, is improbable, is unlikely, it is uncertain, impossible, cannot, can’t, will not, is not
  • Draw attention: it is worth noting that, it should be emphasized that, it should be highlighted that, it should be underlined that, in particular, especially, mainly, chiefly, mostly, it should be pointed out that, it should be noted that, it should be remembered that, it is worth stressing that, is vital, is crucial
  • Contrasting two points: however, but, in spite of, despite, in spite of the fact that, despite the fact that, nevertheless, nonetheless, instead, conversely, on the contrary, by contrast, whereas, while, whilst, although, even though, on the one hand, on the other hand, in contrast, in comparison with, but, yet, alternatively, the former, the latter, respectively, all the same, there are two possibilities, alternatively, the one, the other, either, or, neither, nor, in addition, no only, but also, worse still, better still, equally, likewise, similarly, correspondingly, in the same way, another possibility, in a similar vein, as well as, furthermore, moreover, also, although, again, what is more, besides, too, as well as
  • Giving examples or introducing illustrations: for example, for instance, to name an example, to give an example, is well illustrated by, a case point is, such as, such, one of which, illustrates, is an example of this, is shown by, is exemplified by, is illustrated by, (something) is, means, describes, is defined as, is used, is concerned with, deals with, relates to, involves, signifies, consist of
  • Stating consequences: so, therefore, as a consequence, as a result, now, consequently, because of, thus, for this reason, then, this is why, accordingly, hence, given this, with reference to, given, on this basis, is caused by, causes, due to, has the effect, affects, the reason for, because of this, if, then, results in, leads to, produces, owing to, through, as, since, because
  • Summarizing: to sum up, in summary, to summarize, in brief, altogether, overall, I conclude, I therefore conclude, reached the conclusion that, it is concluded, therefore, for this reason, then, thus, in conclusion, to bring it all together
  • Qualifying frequency: never, rarely, sometimes, usually, often, always, generally, on the whole, frequently, occasionally, hardly ever, seldom
  • Qualifying results: under no circumstances, mainly, generally, predominantly, usually, the majority, most of, almost all, a number of, may be, some, a few, a little, fairly, very, quite, rather, almost
  • Qualifying change: no, minimal, slight, small, slow, gradual, steady, marked, large, dramatic, complete, steep, sharp, rapid, sudden (rise, increase, fluctuation, decrease, decline, reduction, fall, drop, upward trend, downward trend, peak, plateau, level off)

Avoid Weasel Phrases

Weasel phrases are those that make a lot of promise but do not follow through on the delivery. These trigger phrases often precede statements that lack much substantive quality. These terms are particularly important to avoid so as not to invalidate the credibility of your argument. Here is a list of common weasel phrases:

  • allegedly
  • arguably
  • as opposed to most
  • considered by many
  • contrary to many
  • critics/critics say that
  • it could be argued that
  • it has been suggested/stated/said/noticed
  • it is widely believed/generally claimed
  • many people say
  • many scientists argue that
  • research has shown
  • researchers argue that
  • serious scholars say that
  • social science says/believes that
  • some historians argue
  • the scientific community
  • this is widely considered to be/regarded as

Matching Personal Style

Matching your personal style in your speech by defining your voice will take time and practice.

Learning Objectives

Create your own unique voice based on the specific context of your speech

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Your voice is ultimately a reflection of who you are as a person and influences how your audience both perceives and receives you as speaker. Adapt your voice to your audience’s needs, goals, and expectations.
  • Consider your role in relation to the audience. Why are you there to speak to them? What makes you the subject matter expert?
  • Don’t forget to think about the formality and venue of your speech, as well as any relevant cultural contexts that may come into play.
  • Your attitude speaks volumes to your audience. Make sure your attitude is appropriate to all the factors of your speech: topic, audience, and venue. Be aware that subconscious non-verbal cues can betray how you really feel.
  • Don’t be afraid to get creative and let your speech reflect your unique personality.

Key Terms

  • pandering: The act of expressing one’s views in accordance with the likes of a group to which one is attempting to appeal. The term is most notably associated with politics. In pandering, the views one is verbally expressing are merely for the purpose of drawing support and votes and do not necessarily reflect one’s personal values.

Matching Personal Style

When writing a speech, it’s important to consider the complete context in which you plan to speak. From audience, formality, topic, and venue, each of these factor in how you deliver your speech. Your words, phrases, lines of reasoning, as well as the gestures and mannerisms you might use, will influence your personal speaking style.

Senator Dan Quayle gives a speech in 1984.

Your Own Style: Your speech is a reflection of who you are. Be sure to add your own personal style.

Define Your Voice

As you craft your speech, you will naturally begin to adopt a tone and style as you write. Your personal style and tone is what’s known as your voice. Your voice is what makes your writing and speeches unique from those of others. Developing your voice, in particular honing what works for you and what you like, is something that develops over time.

That said, there are other factors that shape your voice. Your voice should adapt to your speech as much as your speech is guided by your voice. Here are six factors to which you must consider as you develop your voice in your speech:


Who will be present at your speech? Who will be listening to what you have to say? As you consider your audience, think of what their needs, goals, and expectations are of your speech. Adapt your tone appropriately to your audience.


Are you presenting at an academic conference? Or are you giving the first toast speech at your best friend’s wedding? Consider the specific occasion, venue, and formality of your speech to make sure you’re using the most appropriate phrasing, language, and wording. Formality will also dictate how you need to dress and appear before your audience.

Your Role in Relation to Your Audience

Why are you there? What makes you the subject matter expert? As much as you’re analyzing your audience, the audience is doing the same of you. Your audience will have expectations and assumptions about you, so it’s helpful to consider them before you ever step foot on stage so that you can adapt and tailor your style accordingly.


It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Your attitude will speak volumes to your audience, not only informing them about you as a person, but either bolstering or eroding your credibility as speaker. Also, be aware that non-verbal cues, such as hand gestures, body stance, and posture can subconsciously betray your real attitude to your audience members, so always be mindful of your physical presence when speaking. You don’t need to be chipper and cheerful for every speech, but your attitude should reflect the other factors influencing your speech.

Cultural Context

Just as when you were analyzing your audience, consider the cultural context of where and to whom you’re speaking. Use your commonalities with the cultural context of your speech venue and audience to build bridges of understanding with your audience. However, don’t fall victim to pandering where you merely say things that reflect the overall needs and expectations of your audience without actually believing in them. Be authentic.

Your Own Creativity

At its heart, your voice is a reflection of you as a person. Let your creativity and the authenticity of your own words and experiences be the vehicle of your voice, guided by your gut. Over time, you’ll know what sounds good and what works well in your speeches.

Incorporate these best practices into your speeches so that they become second nature. It is also helpful to find volunteer readers for your drafts. Having a second reader or mock audience can help you identify areas that can be improved or emphasized, further honing your skills and personal style as a speech writer.

Photograph of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates sitting on a stage together.

What’s your personal style?: Don’t be afraid to let your personal style come through in your speech. Steve Jobs does it well here with his signature black turtleneck.