Choosing Words Well

Learning Objectives

Explain how to use and choose words well for speeches.

A speech must be well researched, logical, and applicable to its audience. These things, alone, though will not guarantee a successful speech. In order for a speech to be well received, the great ideas, logic, and research within must be messaged well and adapted to connect with its audience. When considering how to message your speech, focusing on semantics (the study of relationships between words and how we draw meaning from those words) will help you choose the words that will be most effective in our speech.

Semantics reminds us that words no have meanings within themselves; people have meanings for words. When using and choosing the most effective words for your speech, it is helpful to consider three semantic categories.

Abstract versus Concrete Words

icon of missing image

Abstract Language: Image not found (can you imagine why?)

Abstract words have no physical referent. They refer to intangible qualities, ideas, and concepts that we only know through our intellect, like love, success, moral, or a lot. They are very ambiguous. Because each audience member holds a different understanding of abstract words, these words work very well when appealing to or evoking emotion from a large audience. They enable each audience member to relate in their own way. They should be avoided, however, when providing instruction or other instances when detail is necessary.

A red apple

Concrete Language: A red apple

Concrete words refer to tangible qualities or characteristics—things we know through our senses, like apple, rose, or laptop. If a word is concrete, then you will know which of the five senses it appeals to: sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing. Words like purple, burnt, hot, spicy, or loud are all concrete. As you may have noticed, not all concrete words are specific. When a word conjures up different images, it isn’t very solid. Therefore, when needing to illustrate a specific idea, such as a thesis, try using a tool called the ladder of abstraction.

The ladder of abstraction moves a word from general to specific. General words, like jobs, games, or purple become a more narrow and precise descriptive word when advancing through the ladder, making it easier for the audience to visualize your words.

Entertainment → Games → Video Games → Multiplayer Online Games → Fortnite→ Fortnite Battle Royale

To help audiences emotionally connect, visualize our message, and grasp our meaning, we need to sketch the big picture using abstract words and share concrete stories and examples to add color.

To Watch: Guante on concrete language

In this video, slam poet and activist Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre talks about the importance of using specific, concrete language. Guante is talking about writing spoken-word poetry, but his points about language apply equally to informative speaking. Especially when we’re speaking to inform, it can be easy to fall into broad or abstract descriptions, which can be confusing or forgettable for audiences. Specific, concrete language, however, is easier to follow and much more memorable.

You can view the transcript for “Guante: On Concrete Language, Specificity, and Turning Ideas into Poems” here (opens in new window).

Denotative versus Connotative Meanings

Words have both denotative and connotative meanings.

The denotative meaning is the standard, dictionary-based meaning of a word. Be careful of assuming the audience will all assign the same denotative meaning to your words, though. Some words have multiple denotative meanings, such as scale. Therefore, providing context is important.

The connotative meaning is the emotional responses and personal thoughts evoked by a word. Connotations represent various social overtones, cultural implications, or emotional meanings. Different audience members may have different reactions to the same word.  Therefore, careful audience analysis as well as outside perspectives will help you to match the desired reactions to your words.

Jargon versus Familiar Language

Jargon is a form of shorthand that conveys a specific meaning to the insiders who use it. For instance, within some industries, acronyms like ROI, C-suite, API, or BSB are expected to be used and understood, so when presenting within those industries, using that jargon can be efficient and effective. Though it’s fine to use this specialized vocabulary with a group of industry insiders, it can be confusing and isolating for audience members outside the field or industry. When presenting to a mixed audience where some know and expect jargon and others do not, it is helpful to define the jargon or acronym the first time it is used.

When speaking with a general audience, it’s best to use familiar language that is commonplace both to yourself and to your audience. One of the biggest mistakes novice speakers make is thinking that they have to use million-dollar words because it makes them sound smarter. Actually, million-dollar words don’t tend to function well in oral communication to begin with, so using them will probably make you uncomfortable as a speaker. Also, it may be difficult for you or the audience to understand the nuances of meaning when you use such words, so using them can increase the risk of denotative or connotative misunderstandings. Do not try to use vocabulary words to prove how smart you are—use the words that are the easiest to understand and recognize.