Speaking: Why Using the Right Word is Not Always the Right Thing
by Philip Yaffe
Mark Twain famously
said: "The difference between the right word and the almost
right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
Of course he was absolutely right -- and partially wrong.
As every professional writer knows, choosing exactly the right words
to convey their meaning is crucial, because words are all they have.
Anything less than "les mots justes", as they say in French,
will weaken the message. Therefore, it is worth the time and effort
to find les mots justes. Indeed, the commitment to do so is one
of the key factors that distinguish professional writers from amateurs.
On the other hand, searching out les mots justes in public speaking
can be seriously counterproductive.
This caveat of course
does not refer to "formal" public speaking, where the
speech is written out in advance. Rather, it refers to "informal"
public speaking. This means any time you may be called upon to say
something, such as in a committee meeting, a seminar, a training
session, etc., with little or no preparation.
We all know people who seem able to speak fluently and persuasively
about virtually any subject on a moment's notice.
Likewise, we all know people who constantly trip over their
tongues and appear bewildered even when speaking about subjects
they know very well.
What makes the difference? I believe it is an unnecessary
and fruitless search for les mots justes. I became aware of
this phenomenon at a recent meeting of my Brussels (Belgium)
chapter of Toastmasters International. Founded in the USA
in the 1920s, Toastmasters is a worldwide club of people in
all walks of life dedicated to helping each other improve
their speaking skills (www.toastmasters.org).
A key role at Toastmaster
meetings is attributed to the "ah counter". Throughout
the session, he or she makes note of all the "ums", "ahs",
"you know's", and other distracting hesitations people
rely on when speaking. At a recent meeting of the Dutch-English
club (most clubs in Belgium are bilingual), one participant was
particularly faulty in this respect. After the meeting I asked him
why he had found expressing himself so difficult.
A native Dutch speaker,
he had given a speech in English. He replied, "I am unsure
of my English, so I was always looking for just the right words."
In other words les mots justes. This sounds like a credible explanation,
except it is invalid. Although using the right word is critical
in writing, it is much less so in speaking. While closely related,
writing and speaking are distinct disciplines.
Writing and speaking benefit from precise information (les mots
justes) for the same two reasons.
1. Confidence. The more you seem to know about your subject, the
more people will have confidence in what you say. Using precise
information generates confidence.
2. Consistency. Precise information does not permit unpredictable
misinterpretations. The more precise information you use, the more
easily your audience can follow what you are saying, without their
attention being distracted trying to figure out what you really
On the other
hand, readers and listeners differ
in how they process precise information. With a
printed text, if people don't understand something, they have
the luxury of reading it again. However, if they hear something
they don't understand, it's there, then it's gone. End of
This is not a bad thing, because it means that listeners are
less critical than readers. They are looking to take away
broad general ideas. Details in the speech serve to define
and defend these general ideas. They are not to be memorized
for later examination.
more easily accept the validity of a general statement with
less supporting information than they would require in a text. Thus,
while a bit of imprecision may cause a momentary blip in the listener's
attention, it will quickly disappear because neither the speaker
nor the listener is in a position to dwell on it.
In short, while using
exactly the right word is always recommended, in speaking you shouldn't
become obsessive about it. For any subject, there are usually several
ways of saying the same thing. If you are always looking for the
"best way" (assuming there is one), then you will invariably
find yourself inserting "ums", "ahs", "you
know's", and other distracting interjections. In the vast majority
of cases, sacrificing fluency while searching for les mots justes
just isn't worth it. So go with what you have.
If something comes out of your mouth that you think you could have
said better, simply start your next sentence with, "To be more
precise . . . .", then say it better. This technique will not
only keep your speech fluent, it will make you appear to be master
of your subject, not its apprentice. What could be better than that?
Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with
The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant.
He currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking
in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published book In the “I” of
the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost)
like a Professional is available from Story Publishers in Ghent,
Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com).
For further information, contact: Philip Yaffe Brussels, Belgium
Tel: +32 (0)2 660 0405
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