Using les mots justes

Sometimes speakers seem to forget that the purpose of a speech or presentation is to communicate with the audience. Wrapping your message in impenetrable language defeats the object: if the people in front of you don’t understand what you’re saying, there’s really no point in your saying it.

Audiences vary and as the speaker you need to vary the way you express yourself according to the experience and reference points of the people listening. Find out as much as you can in advance about who your audience is going to be and, as you prepare your talk, imagine conversing with those people. Will they relate to what you’re saying?

Unless you’re 100% sure they are as familiar to every person listening as they are to you, avoid using jargon and acronyms without explaining them. I was at a talk the other day in which ‘BPO’ was mentioned several times. Clearly, it was important but I had no idea what it meant and the speaker’s point was lost on me. (By the way, it stands for Business Process Outsourcing.)

If you’re going to use a metaphor or a simile, make sure your analogy sheds light on the subject rather than obscuring it. Describing someone as “the new Jordan Belfort” is only illuminating if we know who Jordan Belfort is (The Wolf of Wall Street). Saying your company bowled the competition a googly may leave the audience wondering whether to applaud or commiserate. (Apparently, a googly in cricket is when the ball spins in an unexpected way.)

Of course I’m not suggesting you should never use a word or allusion that might not be instantly understood by every member of your audience. Not only do figures of speech and comparisons taken from completely different spheres infuse your talk with colour, they can also offer incisive insights by shaking up the usual paradigms. Just make sure there’s no room for confusion or misunderstanding.

If you’ve prepared your speech or presentation with the specific audience in mind, in all likelihood you will connect with them. But it’s still useful, as you’re delivering it, to watch how it’s being received and make sure your message is getting through. After making a significant point, if you’re seeing blank faces it’s probably a good idea to take a moment to clarify what you’ve said. It may take courage to do this but it’s got to be better than ploughing on with a talk the audience is not following.


About Georgie

Coach and consultant in effective communication - public speaking, interviews & pitches, training, lecturing, meetings, debates & discussions. Motivational speaker
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