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Tips for Creating Maximum Impact

How to use High-Caliber Words, such as those featured in "Words of the Month" and "The Articulate Professional" book, Effectively and without Creating Resentment

There is no question that the use of a word that is fresh, strong, and evocative can help make a message more stirring and indelible. Yet many who already possess a superior command of the language don't take full advantage of that skill, fearful of either not being understood, or worse, coming across as pompous. On the other hand, some people overdo it, deploying strings of big words that make them sound pretentious, causing them to lose the listener, and perhaps also creating annoyance. Here's a case in point:


A few years ago, the head of one of America's most highly regarded museums in the Northeast flew down to Houston to give a 40-minute talk to local art aficionados. Being a proud member of the host organization--the much loved Museum of Fine Arts, Houston--I was in the audience and amazed to find the guest speaker's long presentation jam-packed with polysyllabic, obscure words, with one or two such words in every sentence! My spot interviews with other attendees immediately after the event confirmed my suspicion--that even though most of that highly educated audience were familiar with each of the terms used by the speaker, the unrelenting barrage of highfalutin words made it hard for people to process them fast enough and keep up with the speech. Seemingly, the speaker had done little to tailor his material--adapted from an article he had written for a scholarly journal--to a listening audience. The result: a very pompous presentation!

A communicator should never, ever, forget that it takes a finite amount of time for a listener to absorb and digest a speaker's words, and the more uncommon a word, the greater the processing time required. Consequently, an endless outpouring of difficult or unusual words has a severely negative impact. In addition to giving listeners acute "listening indigestion," it creates antipathy, a deep aversion toward the speaker. Under such circumstances, it's quite unlikely that the communicator will be able to achieve his or her purpose, no matter how compelling the message or how strong the arguments.

Therefore, allow me to offer a few suggestions on how to use high-caliber words--such as those featured in "Words of the Month" and "The Articulate Professional" book--to achieve the maximum beneficial impact in discourse.

  1. Synonyms. The use of synonymous words and phrases will help ensure the complete understanding of your communication by the listener, even if the latter is unfamiliar with a difficult word you have just used. And when used with pauses and appropriate body language, synonyms will prevent your speech from becoming inflated or pretentious.

    Let's take an example from a PBS interview with top-notch communicator and famous tycoon Larry Ellison. Discussing a challenge that his company, Oracle, was facing from Microsoft, Mr. Ellison praised Bill Gates, describing him as "exceptionally talented, and very, very bright," and then went on to say, "He is an utterly single-minded, indefatigable foe. He focuses 19 hours of every day on how to make Microsoft more competitive and more successful." Here, the word "indefatigable" reinforces the thrust of the previous word "single-minded" and thus acts like a synonym, even though the two are not actual synonyms from the standpoint of their definitions in a dictionary. Thus, if some of the listeners weren't totally familiar with the word "indefatigable," they'd still get the gist of the sentence because of the simpler adjective "single-minded" preceding it. A similar application occurs in the second sentence, where "successful" works as a synonym to "competitive," even though the two are not dictionary synonyms. Net result: in each of the two sentences, Mr. Ellison's utterance contains more impact!

    During my more than two decades of research in how America's most effective communicators stress their thoughts and ideas, I've found that if a communication contains synonyms, most often the higher caliber word is uttered after the simpler word. But, sometimes articulate people do present a high-caliber word first, in which case they invariably follow it up with a simpler word or phrase, either in the same sentence or in the one immediately following. See the example in # 5 below.

  2. Split-second pauses. Making split-second, usually spontaneous, pauses both before and after an uncommon or difficult word has several positive effects. First, the pauses draw attention to the word; listeners get the opportunity to experience the full impact and absorb its meaning. Second, if listeners are unfamiliar with the word, the pauses provide processing time, enabling them to derive meaning from the context. And third, a brief pause following a high-caliber word facilitates the interjection of a synonym, if need be.

    It is worth noting that rapid speech (in other words, with no split-second pauses), diminishes the chances of a fresh, out-of-the-ordinary word springing to your lips spontaneously.

  3. Appropriate body language. When you combine pauses with slightly self-deprecating body language such as a shrug or with facial expressions such as a knitted brow, a smile, or a look of apology, the chances of your being perceived as a showoff or as talking down to your audience will all but vanish. On the contrary, you will be seen to be using a particular word because no other word will do!

  4. Use sparingly. Resist the urge to start massively deploying the many new and sexy words you are likely to quickly add to your lexicon, thanks to this book's unique design. Recall my opening story about that ostentatious chieftain from the world of art museums. I strongly recommend that unless you are talking to a very specialized audience, you should use no more than one difficult or uncommon word for every two or three sentences, maximum. Once again, if you string several uncommon words together, you will not only lose your listeners but also create annoyance and hostility.

  5. Don't rub it in. Avoid repeated use of a particular high-caliber word during a conversation. If you need to restate or reemphasize a point, idea, or sentiment, using synonyms or a synonymous phrase is the way to go.

    Of the hundreds of examples of excellent communication I have collected for my workshops and coaching sessions, a standout that embodies several of the tips mentioned so far is from a radio interview given by James Baker III during the mid-1990s. On being asked how he was able to get the Arabs and Israelis to stay at the negotiating table while he was serving as the U.S. secretary of state, Mr. Baker replied: "Neither party wanted to be seen as standing in the way of peace. So, anytime one of the parties was [pause] recalcitrant, I would simply remind them we didn't want the peace process to end as a result of their [pause] reluctance." Here, having once used the word "recalcitrant," Mr. Baker paused as he groped for a different word to express that same sentiment, and the word "reluctance" popped into his head as a fitting alternative.

  6. Antonyms. This is best explained by an example. Supposing I said: "It's hard to find doctors experienced in brain repair because the science is nascent. Unlike, say, heart bypass surgery, brain repair is not a field that's been around for decades." Here, the phrase "around for decades" in my second sentence works as an antonym to "nascent," thus ensuring complete understanding of my first sentence.

  7. Know your audience. Obviously, you can dig deeper into your command of the language when addressing, say, graduate students at Yale or a group of attorneys, than if you are speaking to an assembly of high-school sophomores or to a group of newly-minted U.S. citizens.

  8. Colloquial or informal terms, or resorting to the vernacular. Colloquial or informal terms such as "sort of," "kind of," "pretty much," or even an occasional "you know," help soften a difficult word's hard edge and also help you bond with the audience, because you will come across as down-to-earth and approachable. And when used with other techniques such as appropriate body language, synonyms, and pauses, informal terms can substantially enhance audience receptivity to your extensive vocabulary.

    For example, following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when one of America's foremost counter-terrorism experts was asked whether the FBI should infiltrate the militias, he replied: "It could be counterproductive, especially if you are talking about a kind of a [pause] agent provocateur sort of tactics that have been used in the past." It may not be perfect grammar, but the interjection of the phrases "kind of" and "sort of" helped make the French term "agent provocateur" more palatable to the audience and made the speaker appear more personable and less alien.

    Resorting to the vernacular or occasionally using a slang word is another way to connect with the audience. Suppose you were speaking to an audience drawn from the homebuilding industry. Wouldn't you be more effective if your presentation was laced with homebuilding vernacular?

    Finally, one amusing tidbit: The late William F. Buckley Jr., highly respected for his unmatched command of the language, would sometimes use one of his trademark polysyllabic terms and the word "ain't" in the same breath!

  9. Shunning words that are not in anyone's conversational vocabulary. I often hear of office workers or public speaking clubs adopting, as their "word of the day" or "word of the week" or whatever, an extremely obscure term taken from a literary magazine article or some lofty vocabulary-building feature on the Internet--words such as perspicuous, ensanguine, alterity, fugacious, inspissate, prestidigitation, ratiocination, risible . . . words which my 20+ years of ongoing research confirms as not being in the conversational vocabulary of even the most articulate American professionals. In my opinion, spending one's time trying to become familiar with such "spelling bee words" is a terrible idea; a complete waste. A good rule of thumb when deciding whether to induct a particular word into your lexicon might be to limit yourself to those featured in any of my publications, since all of my featured items have been chosen from a database of terms actually used conversationally by America's most articulate. Another litmus test might be if you've heard a couple of different people--say, two different talking heads--use the word. Even then, if it is a relatively arcane word, be sure to use it with a synonym.