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Be Heard. Speak Plainly.

Be Heard. Speak Plainly.

Crystal Clear

    Every semester I get a handful of students who have settled on the idea that the more big words they use, the better. Regardless of whether they know what those words mean or not.

    So I get papers elucidating the patriarchal configuration of the social arrangement, rather than telling me about male-dominated societies. Or they pontificate on the topic of inadequate provision of pedagogical resources vis-à-vis the particular requirements of participation in the modern form of governance, instead of describing the failure of schools to prepare kids to be good citizens. And so on.

    They learn it, of course, from the bad writing that plagues many of the works assigned to them. But it is because we as a society hold such work in high regard that students ape the style of the complicated stuff instead of the more readable work on their reading lists – which is just a s common as the hoity-toity stuff. They think writing smart must mean using big words and tortured grammar, mistaking difficulty of a work for some measure of its quality.

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    If you have to work at it, the thinking goes, it must be worth working at.

    Of course, this is nonsense. Yes, there are works of exceeding difficulty that are worth reading – in spite of the difficulty, not because of it. And these works – even the best of them – would benefit greatly from a good strong dose of plainspoken-ness. In fact, the ideas in many academic works may even be stronger if they were expressed more clearly.

    The same holds true for all kinds of writing and speaking – for communication in general. If it’s important at all, it deserves to be expressed clearly and plainly, so that anyone can understand it. The language that academics use and students love to imitate is not meant to communicate ideas, it’s meant to hide them, to act as a test to see who belongs and who doesn’t. The same is true of the gibberish that many business people write and speak, leveraging their synergistic solution platforms in order to maximize the extraction of secondary revenues in the blah blah blah.

    The problem is that this kind of language buries ideas and muddies thinking. Which, of course, is the point a lot of the time – the business can’t come right out and say they killed 400 people with faulty products and the student can’t come out an say she has no idea what the readings were about or that he hasn’t been to class for weeks.

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    But if the ideas are important – and if you live a life where they aren’t, get out and start over – they deserve to be shared in all their glory, not hidden behind a veil of words. It’s not too hard to speak or write plainly if you follow a few simple rules.

    1. Honor the idea.

    Speaking plainly starts and ends with the idea. This could be how to bring about world peace or what Pantone color to use on your office’s stationery – put the idea front and center and let it shine. Don’t damage it by trying to make it appear fancy – if it’s a good one, it doesn’t need help and if it’s a bad one, it doesn’t need saying.

    Along the same lines, avoid qualifying yourself too much. While it’s fine to express uncertainly when you’re really uncertain, too often people “soften” their ideas by phrasing them as things that they “believe” or “think” or “feel”. They present facts as opinions and opinions as feelings, making it almost impossible to deal with the actual substance of the idea being spoken. Don’t do that – stand behind what you say and take the risk of being wrong.

    2. Be yourself.

    Usually when people speak un-plainly, it’s because they are trying to appear to be something – or someone – that they’re not: smarter, better educated, most business-like, cooler, or whatever.  They’re hiding their real self behind a screen of words that they would never use otherwise. It’s a bit odd, really – if the idea you’re trying to express is yours, why pretend someone else had it?

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    3. When given a choice, choose the shorter word.

    English is a funny language; there are almost always two or more words that mean the same thing. Usually, one will tend to be longer and more vague, like “civilized”, and the other will be shorter and more direct, like “polite” or “nice” or just “good”. As a general rule, people trying to dress up their ideas in showy clothes go for the longer, vaguer words – which is why the idea itself can be weakened. Use indirect language to express yourself long enough, soon even you will not be able to say exactly what it is you mean! When you have a choice, go for the shorter word – if it sounds too blunt or even rude, chances are it’s the clearest way to say what you intend.

    4. Cut the description.

    There is a place for description of course: when you’re describing something. But too often people attempt to give their ideas a little extra “oomph” by adding a whole bunch of adjectives and adverbs around it, burying the idea itself beneath a mass of irrelevant detail. Cut to the chase and leave the descriptive language for when its needed.

    5. Communication is job one.

    Sometimes when you’re writing something or speaking, you’ll have the urge to “step up” the language because what you’re saying doesn’t sound pretty enough. This means it’s working. Remember that, unless you’re writing a poem or a ballad, your first priority isn’t to impress people with the beauty of your prose but to communicate an idea to them.

    6. Don’t be afraid of “you” and “me”.

    Another way that people use language to hide their ideas in a vain attempt to sound impressive is to write in a distant, impersonal tone. While there are some forms of writing where this is necessary – journalism, for example, or clinical reports – a lot of writing and speech can be made more approachable by embracing the first person. Using “I” and “me” gives your readers or listeners something – someone –to attach the ideas you’re expressing to a real person, making them more concrete and more human.

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    Likewise, you can engage your audience more fully by speaking directly to and about them, instead of about “one” or even “we”. Instead of putting your examples in the third person, address them directly to your reader or listener by using “you”.

    Remember, no matter how good your ideas, if you can’t communicate them clearly you may as well not have them. Speak plainly and be heard!

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    Last Updated on December 2, 2018

    7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

    7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

    When giving a presentation or speech, you have to engage your audience effectively in order to truly get your point across. Unlike a written editorial or newsletter, your speech is fleeting; once you’ve said everything you set out to say, you don’t get a second chance to have your voice heard in that specific arena.

    You need to make sure your audience hangs on to every word you say, from your introduction to your wrap-up. You can do so by:

    1. Connecting them with each other

    Picture your typical rock concert. What’s the first thing the singer says to the crowd after jumping out on stage? “Hello (insert city name here)!” Just acknowledging that he’s coherent enough to know where he is is enough for the audience to go wild and get into the show.

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    It makes each individual feel as if they’re a part of something bigger. The same goes for any public speaking event. When an audience hears, “You’re all here because you care deeply about wildlife preservation,” it gives them a sense that they’re not just there to listen, but they’re there to connect with the like-minded people all around them.

    2. Connect with their emotions

    Speakers always try to get their audience emotionally involved in whatever topic they’re discussing. There are a variety of ways in which to do this, such as using statistics, stories, pictures or videos that really show the importance of the topic at hand.

    For example, showing pictures of the aftermath of an accident related to drunk driving will certainly send a specific message to an audience of teenagers and young adults. While doing so might be emotionally nerve-racking to the crowd, it may be necessary to get your point across and engage them fully.

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    3. Keep going back to the beginning

    Revisit your theme throughout your presentation. Although you should give your audience the credit they deserve and know that they can follow along, linking back to your initial thesis can act as a subconscious reminder of why what you’re currently telling them is important.

    On the other hand, if you simply mention your theme or the point of your speech at the beginning and never mention it again, it gives your audience the impression that it’s not really that important.

    4. Link to your audience’s motivation

    After you’ve acknowledged your audience’s common interests in being present, discuss their motivation for being there. Be specific. Using the previous example, if your audience clearly cares about wildlife preservation, discuss what can be done to help save endangered species’ from extinction.

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    Don’t just give them cold, hard facts; use the facts to make a point that they can use to better themselves or the world in some way.

    5. Entertain them

    While not all speeches or presentations are meant to be entertaining in a comedic way, audiences will become thoroughly engaged in anecdotes that relate to the overall theme of the speech. We discussed appealing to emotions, and that’s exactly what a speaker sets out to do when he tells a story from his past or that of a well-known historical figure.

    Speakers usually tell more than one story in order to show that the first one they told isn’t simply an anomaly, and that whatever outcome they’re attempting to prove will consistently reoccur, given certain circumstances.

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    6. Appeal to loyalty

    Just like the musician mentioning the town he’s playing in will get the audience ready to rock, speakers need to appeal to their audience’s loyalty to their country, company, product or cause. Show them how important it is that they’re present and listening to your speech by making your words hit home to each individual.

    In doing so, the members of your audience will feel as if you’re speaking directly to them while you’re addressing the entire crowd.

    7. Tell them the benefits of the presentation

    Early on in your presentation, you should tell your audience exactly what they’ll learn, and exactly how they’ll learn it. Don’t expect them to listen if they don’t have clear-cut information to listen for. On the other hand, if they know what to listen for, they’ll be more apt to stay engaged throughout your entire presentation so they don’t miss anything.

    Featured photo credit: Flickr via farm4.staticflickr.com

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