- Understand the six elements of language important for public speakers.
- Utilize the six elements of language in your own public speeches.
Language is a very important aspect of anyone’s public speaking performance. Whether a speaker uses lots of complicated words or words most people have in their vocabularies, language will determine how an audience experiences the speech. To help you think through your language choices, we are going to talk about six important elements of language and how they affect audience perceptions.
The first important element of language is clarity, or the use of language to make sure the audience understands a speaker’s ideas in the way the speaker intended. While language, or verbal communication, is only one channel we can use to transmit information, it is a channel that can lend itself to numerous problems. For example, as discussed earlier, if people have different connotative definitions for words, the audience can miss the intended meaning of a message.
Imagine you’re listening to a speaker talking and he or she uses the phrase, “Older female relative who became aerodynamic venison road kill,” or “Obese personification fabricated of compressed mounds of minute crystals.” If you’re like most people, these two phrases just went right over your head. We’ll give you a hint, these are two common Christmas songs. The first phrase refers to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and the second one is “Frosty the Snowman.” Notice that in both of these cases, the made-up title with all the polysyllabic words is far less clear than the commonly known one. While you are probably unlikely to deliberately distort the clarity of your speech by choosing such outlandish words to express simple thoughts, the point we are illustrating is that clear language makes a big difference in how well a message can be understood.
Another common mistake among new public speakers is thinking that more words are more impressive. In fact, the opposite is true. When people ramble on and on without actually making a point, audiences become bored and distracted. To avoid this problem, we recommend word economy, or the use of only those words necessary to accurately express your idea. If the fundamental idea you are trying to say is, “that stinks,” then saying something like “while the overall outcome may be undesirable and definitely not recommended” becomes overkill. We do have one caveat here: you want to make sure that your language isn’t so basic that it turns off your audience. If you are speaking to adults and use vocabulary appropriate for school children, you’ll end up offending your audience. So while economy is definitely important, you don’t want to become so overly basic that you are perceived as “talking down” to your audience.
Obscenity, or indecent language, consists of curse words or pornographic references. While it may be fun to use obscene language in casual conversations with your friends, we cannot recommend using obscene language while delivering a speech. Even if you’re giving a speech related to an obscene word, you must be careful with your use of the word itself. Whether we agree with societal perceptions of obscenity, going out of our way to use obscenity will end up focusing the audience on the obscenity and not on our message.
Obscure language and jargon are two terms that closely relate to each other. Obscure language refers to language choices that are not typically understood or known by most of your audience. Imagine you’re listening to a speech and the speaker says, “Today I’ve given you a plethora of ideas for greening your workplace.” While you may think the word “plethora” is commonly known, we can assure you that many people have no idea that plethora means many or an abundance of something. Similarly, you may think most people know what it means to “green” a workplace, but in fact many people do not know that it means to make the workplace more environmentally friendly, or to reduce its impact on the environment. In the case of this example, plethora simply means the speaker has given many ideas for greening the workplace. You can still use the word “plethora,” but you should include a definition so that you’re sure all of your audience will understand.
Jargon, on the other hand, refers to language that is commonly used by a highly specialized group, trade, or profession. For example there is legal jargon, or the language commonly used by and understood by lawyers. There is also medical jargon, or the language commonly used by and understood by health care practitioners. Every group, trade, or profession will have its own specific jargon. The problem that occurs for many speakers is not realizing that jargon is group, trade, or profession specific and not universal. One common form of jargon is the acronym, a word formed by taking the first letters or groups of letters of words, such as NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations), PET (positron emission tomography) scan, or IHOP (International House of Pancakes). Another form of jargon is initialism, formed by pronouncing the initials rather than the name of an organization or other entity. For example, CDC stands for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fMRI stands for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and B of A stands for Bank of America. In political discussions, you may come across various CFRs, or Codes of Federal Regulations. If you are going to use a specific acronym or initialism within your speech, you need to explain it the first time you use it. For example, you could say,
According to the United States Code of Federal Regulations, or CFR, employment discrimination in the Department of Homeland Security is not allowed based on biological sex, religion, sexual orientation, or race. Furthermore, the US CFR does not permit discrimination in receiving contracts based on biological sex, religion, sexual orientation, or race.
By defining the jargon upon first mention, we are subsequently able to use the jargon because we can be certain the audience now understands the term.
Power is an individual’s ability to influence another person to think or behave in a manner the other person would not have otherwise done. DeVito examined how language can be used to help people gain power over others or lose power over others. Table 1 “Powerful and Powerless Language” provides examples of both powerful language and powerless language a speaker can use during a speech. Powerless language should generally be avoided in public speaking because it can damage audience perceptions of the speaker’s credibility.
Table 1. Powerful and Powerless Language
|Direct Requests||Asking the audience to engage in a specific behavior.||“At the conclusion of today’s speech, I want you to go out and buy a bottle of hand sanitizer and start using it to protect your life.”|
|Bargaining||An agreement that affects both parties of a situation.||“If you vote for me, I promise to make sure that our schools get the funding they so desperately need.”|
|Ingratiation||Attempting to bring oneself into the favor or good graces of an audience.||“Because you are all smart and talented people, I know that you will see why we need to cut government spending.”|
|Hesitations||Language that makes the speaker sound unprepared or uncertain.||“Well, as best I was able to find out, or I should say, from what little material I was able to dig up, I kind of think that this is a pretty interesting topic.”|
|Intensifiers||Overemphasizing all aspects of the speech.||“Great! Fantastic! This topic is absolutely amazing and fabulous!”|
|Disqualifiers||Attempts to downplay one’s qualifications and competence about a specific topic.||“I’m not really an expert on this topic, and I’m not very good at doing research, but here goes nothing.”|
|Tag Questions||A question added to the end of a phrase seeking the audience’s consent for what was said.||“This is a very important behavior, isn’t it?” or “You really should do this, don’t you think?”|
|Self-Critical Statements||Downplaying one’s own abilities and making one’s lack of confidence public.||“I have to tell you that I’m not a great public speaker, but I’ll go ahead and give it a try.”|
|Hedges||Modifiers used to indicate that one isn’t completely sure of the statement just made.||“I really believe this may be true, sort of.” “Maybe my conclusion is a good idea. Possibly not.”|
|Verbal Surrogates||Utterances used to fill space while speaking; filler words.||“I was, like, err, going to, uhhh, say something, um, important, like, about this.”|
The last important aspect of language is variety, or a speaker’s ability to use and implement a range of different language choices. In many ways, variety encompasses all the characteristics of language previously discussed in this chapter. Often speakers find one language device and then beat it into the ground like a railroad spike. Unfortunately, when a speaker starts using the same language device too often, the language device will start to lose the power that it may have had. For this reason, we recommend that you always think about the language you plan on using in a speech and make sure that you use a range of language choices.
- Public speakers need to make sure that they are very aware of their language. Six common language issues that impact public speakers are clarity, economy, obscenity, obscure language/jargon, power, and variety.
- When public speakers prepare their speeches, they need to make sure that their speeches contain clear language, use as few words as possible to get their point across, avoid obscenity, be careful with obscure language/jargon, use powerful language, and include variety.
- Find a passage in a specialized book or upper-level textbook that expresses a complex idea. Rewrite the passage so that it is clear and avoids jargon. Test out your explanation by seeing if the message is clear to someone unfamiliar with the topic and by seeing if it is an accurate revision to someone who is very familiar with the topic.
- Find a written copy of a speech at least one page in length (Vital Speeches of the Day is an excellent source for this exercise). Summarize the speech accurately and completely in one paragraph. Then reduce your summary to twenty words. How did you go about changing your language for greater economy of word use?
- DeVito, J. A. (2009). The interpersonal communication book (12th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. ↵