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Effective language use in public speaking


Effective public speaking means developing your own language style instead of trying to copy someone else's. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Good speakers respect language and how it works. Words are vital to thinking itself. Thought and language are closely linked. We do not get an idea and then come up with words to express it.

Rather, we usually think in words. People often say, "I know what I want to say, but I just don't know how to say it." In fact, if you truly, knew what you wanted to say, you probably would be able to say it. On most occasions when we are looking for "just the right word," what we are really looking for is just the right idea.

Words are the tools of a speaker's craft. They have special uses, just like the tools of any other profession. Have you watched a carpenter at work? The job that would take you or me a couple of hours is done by the carpenter in 10 minutes - with the right tools. You can't drive a nail with a screwdriver or turn a screw with a hammer. It is the same with public speaking. You must choose the right words for the job you want to do.

Words have two kinds of meanings - denotative and connotative. Denotative meaning is precise, literal and objective and simply describes the object, place, person or event referred. Connotative is more variable, figurative, suggestive, implied and subjective. It has to to with the meaning suggested by the associations or emotions triggered by a word or a phrase.

An effective public speaker must be aware of the meanings of words and know how to use language accurately, clearly, vividly and appropriately. Let's discuss each of the four separately and in depth.

To address accuracy of speech, keep asking yourself, "What do I really want to say? What do I really mean?" prepare your speeches. Choose words that are precise, exact, accurate. When in doubt, consult the dictionary or thesaurus to make sure you have the best words to express your ideas.

On clarity of language use, you should work out a systematic plan to improve your vocabulary, if you have serious aspirations as a speaker. Years ago Malcolm X, the famous African - American leader, did this by copying the dictionary, word by word! This method is extreme, and few people would take the time for it. A less arduous plan might be to try using one new word everyday - and using the word correctly. The purpose of this is to learn a lot of ‘big’ words, but to "learn when certain words should be used and when to avoid others."

Still on clarity, the public speaker must always remember that people are different. What makes perfect sense to some may be gobbledygook to others. You cannot assume that what is clear to you is clear to your audience. This is particularly true in speechmaking. Listeners, unlike readers, cannot turn to a dictionary or reread an author's words to discover their meaning.

A speaker's meaning must be immediately comprehensible and so clear that there is virtually no chance of misunderstanding. You can ensure this by using familiar words, by choosing concrete words over abstract words, and by eliminating verbal clutter.

You cannot go wrong by following the advice of Winston Churchill to speak in, "short, homely words of common usage.

Vivid language use helps bring speech to life. One sign of a vivid language use is the ability to create word pictures or imagery, that get the audience totally involved with the speech. Three ways to to generate imagery are by using concrete words, simile and metaphor.

Rhythm created by the choice and arrangement of words is another great evidence of vivid language craft. Four stylistic devices employed by Winston Churchill and other fine speakers enhance speech rhythm and prose and should be encouraged.

They include parallelism which means the similar arrangement of a pair or series of related words, phrases or sentences, repetition which means a reiteration of the same word or set of words at the beginning or end of successive clauses or sentences, alliteration which is the repetition of the initial consonant sound of close adjoining words and antithesis which refers to the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, usually in parallel structure.

The effective public speaker must use language appropriately which means adapting to the particular occasion, audience and topic at hand in speech preparation and delivery. It also means developing your own language style instead of trying to copy someone else's.

Finally, good language use requires that one avoids sexist language in a speech. Such language that may be seen by a section of the audience to promote the stereotyping of people on the basis of gender must be avoided for it's opposite, the nonsexist language.

RUTH NDERO, corporate communications officer, National Industrial Training Authority.