17June 2024

Public Speaking Tips for Vocabulary

‘Words have meanings’
- as NLP practitioner and writer Shelley Rose Charvet would say.
Certain words can be loaded with extra meaning on certain occasions and for certain audiences.
Politicians are occasionally accused of ‘dog-whistle’ politics, using vocabulary that on the surface may seem innocent enough, but carries a deeper layer of implied meaning for those tuned in to the underlying message.

As speakers, we must remember that the written word differs from the spoken word.
Speakers are first and foremost speakers and not necessarily poets, however, there is always the option to use more creative and arresting words in order to increase impact.
Speakers tend to do this, particularly at the beginning and the end of a speech.
Our vocabulary is always a means to make a point of reinforcing a message;
it is not primarily to delight or charm.

Specialist speeches may require specialist vocabulary. It is then it is up to the speaker to decide whether his audience may need help in defining some of those terms (so as not to lose or confuse) or whether they are expert enough to understand the terminology.
The job of the speaker is to carry the audience through to the end of the speech and if individual members of the audience become lost during the presentation or if there is anything they do not understand, their attention will tend to wander and then they will probably give up altogether.
So we should not just want to
- dazzle with our brilliance
- mesmerise with our artistry or
- patronise with our intelligence.
We simply want to carry every possible member of our audience through from our introduction to our conclusion and hopefully with a few nods of agreement or approval on the way.

On the other hand, we do not want to talk down to our audience by over-simplifying what to them may already seem obvious.

So part of reading and researching the audience will also guide us toward the right words to reach them.
The vocabulary needed for a presentation explaining ‘how’ to do something (a set of instructions) will probably need to be simpler in form and words than a speech designed to stir passions.

10 tips on vocabulary in Public Speaking

To bring out Key words

  1. For Emphasis

This tip could apply equally in an article on ‘Use of Voice’ because the best way to make a word stand out is to place an emphasis on it when it is spoken
If I were to tell you to ‘never give up’, clearly the important word is ‘never’ and so that is the word that I would emphasise.  Therefore first of all I, the speaker, need to have a clear idea of which words contain the key meaning.
There is a famous phrase used in teaching students the significance of correct inflection:
‘I did not say she stole the money.’
Try repeating that sentence and each time emphasise a different word and you will find that each time the meaning changes.
That is the power of the spoken word!
Written words can have ambiguous meanings, but in the mouth of a speaker, it is the choice of emphasis that leads to meaning.
There are many ways to emphasise a word or a phrase: through a change in volume, pace or pitch; or by using a gesture, eye contact or a pause just before and / or after.

  1. For Repetition

Churchill’s famous lines:
‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’
gain their insistence from the repetition of the words ‘we shall fight’
A writing teacher may urge their pupil to find different words to avoid repetition, but a speaker loves repetition as it is a prime tool to drive meaning home.
Hence so many of the rhetorical structures that we love to hear are built around repetition.
By joining repetition with emphasis the important words will start to have an impact on the audience and the meaning will become clear.

  1. For Structure

If you are using repetition to make your point and so emphasising the key words, you can take that one stage further and use those words as the basis for the structure of a speech.
There is a musical form called Rondo, which is built around a theme that keeps coming back.
In some ways, it is not that different to a song with a refrain.
When Rishi Sunak first became Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had to deliver his first budget at short notice and at the end of every proposed policy he added the refrain of:
‘And we are getting it done.’
I remember a sales presentation about how salespeople need to learn to overcome rejection and so at the end of every example the speaker shouted ‘Next!’ to indicate the need not to dwell on the rejection but to move on.
Comedians may choose to build their set around some form of repetition and then go for the biggest laugh by repeating the catchphrase in a way that has shifted its meaning.
Ivor Novello wrote a song called:
‘And her mother came too.’
It is about a young man who can never be alone with his girlfriend because her mother insists on always being there too.
At the end of each verse, regardless of what they try to be alone together, we learn that ‘and her mother came too’
The final joke of the song is that the mother is knocked unconscious by a gold ball.
They think they can be alone together at last, but….’her mother came to.’

To develop your vocabulary

  1. Read!

Most leadership programmes will tell you that:
‘Leaders are readers and readers are leaders!’
(I probably don’t need to point out all the rhetorical tricks in that sentence, but they are calculated to make the words stick in the mind.)
As well as broadening your horizons, reading is an opportunity to broaden your vocabulary.
My experience from learning foreign languages is that it takes a conscious effort to embed new words.
Simply reading without stopping, without noting down, or at least looking up new words will not be as effective as making a concerted effort to take on new words.
Learning a foreign language will also teach you that you can learn a passive vocabulary quite quickly, but speakers – in whatever language – need to develop an active vocabulary.
Therefore read to broaden the vocabulary and note down new words to aid memory.

  1. Learn words in a context

The comedian Benny Hill made a career out of deliberately taking the literal meaning of a word and using it out of context.
So the Nursery rhyme
‘Pop goes the weasel’ is translated as:
‘Another furry animal explodes.’
Simply learning lists of new words can be dangerous if they are learned out of context.
And learning words from a list is always going to be harder to remember than learning a word in an evocative phrase
WB Yeats’
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre’
will probably give a more meaningful understanding to the word ‘gyre’ than simply learning that it means ‘spiral’ or ‘vortex’.

  1. Puzzles and Word games

Any activity that gets you among words can be useful.
Simple or advanced crosswords or the popular Wordle
Learning a foreign language can also help, as it will make you more sensitive to subtleties of meaning as well as how easy it is to overcomplicate, misuse or to become too idiomatic in your expression.
I remember an Italian girl staying with us and one of my Irish aunts, wanting to make conversation, inquired how long she was staying, but expressed it as:
‘Is ye stoppin’ long?’
That may be clear among Irish people, but the unfortunate italian girl had never heard anything like it!

  1. Specialist or technical language

If your credibility and therefore your ability to influence is derived from the depth of your knowledge of a subject then it is important to make sure that you know and can use the correct terminology correctly.
I remember attending a school teachers’ conference where the speaker wanted to cover the value of
clubs and activities that take place after school.
The terminology has probably moved on again over the last years, but the speaker kept referring to ‘extracurricular’ activities and the current term at the time was ‘enrichment’.
Everyone obviously understood what was being said, but using an outmoded term suggested that the speaker might be out of touch with the current situation and so his ability to influence was greatly diminished because the audience felt that if his vocabulary was out of date, then maybe his experience and understanding of the current teacher’s workload was also.

      (7b. Keep it simple)

This might almost feel like a contradiction to the last tip, but the role of the speaker is to be clearly understood and to get a message across to their audience, not to show how clever they are.
Therefore on some occasions, the correct use of technical language may aid that message and the speaker’s credibility in delivering that message, but on other occasions using simple terms that everyone in the audience can understand will increase the likelihood of everyone in the room being reached.
Why use long words when simple ones will do?
If my credibility rests on using up-to-date educational language correctly, I must have the right words at my command.
However if I am a parent – i.e. not an educational expert, but I am speaking as the expert in the needs of my child – then simple and almost self-consciously basic language will effectively put across the message that I am not claiming to be an educational expert, but I do have an understanding of what my child needs.

Some rhetorical devices

  1. Polyptoton

Polyptoton means the use of different forms of the root of a word.
For instance: ‘a builder who built a beautiful building.’
So if you want to speak about conspiracies, then any word with the root of conspire will become important:
conspiracy, conspire, conspirators, conspiring, conspiratorially.
These become your keywords, which you can stress and repeat and thereby emphatically put across your message.

  1. Diacope

This follows the format of: 
‘Bond.  James Bond’,
and so we could say:
Conspiracies.  Everywhere, conspiracies!’
Or using the format of Shakespeare’s:
‘A horse.  A horse.  My kingdom for a horse!
we could say:
‘Conspiracies.  Conspiracies.  We are surrounded by conspiracies.’

  1. Alliteration

It might ‘take two to tango’,
you might need a ‘partner to polka’
or a ‘friend to foxtrot’
or just fancy a ‘jolly gigue with Jim’
Alliteration is one of the simplest ways of creating ‘sticky’ vocabulary,
or should I say ‘weighty words’, ‘forceful phrases’ or ‘vivid vocabulary’

Words have meanings.
It is worth taking time to find the right ones, structure them into your presentation and deliver them with resonance.

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.