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Public Speaking: Why Using the Right Word is Not Always the Right Thing to do

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Public Speaking: Why Using the Right Word is Not Always the Right Thing to do 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 (

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 mean.


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 story.

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.

Listeners also 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?

Contributing Writer:  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 ( and Amazon (

For further information, contact: Philip Yaffe Brussels, Belgium Tel: +32 (0)2 660 0405
Email: [email protected], [email protected]

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