12 Developing Your Ability to Use Effective Language in Public Speaking

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, the student will be able to:

  1. Recognize language used for power and the power of language choices.
  2. Explain the standard of clarity.
  3. Choose language appropriate for audiences.
  4. Choose clear language.
  5. Begin to develop her/his own language ability in speaking.

What Language Is and Does

The Ancient Romans who studied and taught rhetoric divided its study and process into five “canons:” invention, disposition, style, memory, and delivery. The term “style” does not refer to clothing styles but language choices. Should a public speaker use very basic language because the audience is unfamiliar with his topic? Or more technical language with many acronyms, abbreviations, and jargon because the audience has expertise in the topic? Or academic language with abstract vocabulary, or flowery, poetic language with lots of metaphors? Perhaps you have never thought about those questions, but they are ones that influence both the clarity of the message as well as the credibility a speaker will gain during the presentation.

However, we would be wrong if we treated language as an “add-on” to the ideas and structure of the speech. Language is a far too complex and foundational aspect of our lives for us to consider it as an afterthought for a speech. In this chapter we will look at how language functions in communication, what standards language choices should meet in public speaking, and how you can become more proficient in using language in public speaking.

Language is any formal system of gestures, signs, sounds, and symbols used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, either through written, enacted, or spoken means. Linguists believe there are far more than 6,900 languages and distinct dialects spoken in the world today (Anderson, 2012). The language spoken by the greatest number of people on the planet is Mandarin (a dialect of Chinese). Other widely spoken languages are English, Spanish, and Arabic. English is spoken widely on every content (thanks to the British Empire) but Mandarin is spoken by the most people. While we tend to think of language in its print form, for most of history and for most of the world, language has been or is spoken, or oral. More than half of spoken languages have not even been put into written form yet (https://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/langhotspots/fastfacts.html).

We have already seen in earlier chapters that public speakers have to make adjustments to language for audiences. For example, spoken language is more wordy and repetitive than written language needs to be or should be. It is accompanied by gestures, vocal emphasis, and facial expressions. Additionally, spoken language includes more personal pronouns and more expressive, emotional, colloquial, slang, and nonstandard words.

The study of language is, believe it or not, controversial. If you are an education, social sciences, pre-law, or English major, you will somewhere in your college career come up against this truth. While we use words everyday and don’t think about it, scholars in different fields concern themselves with how we choose words, why we choose words, what effect words have on us, and how the powerful people of the world use words. One theory of language, general semantics, says that meaning resides in the person using the word, not in the word (“Basic Understandings,” 2015). It is helpful for the public speaker to keep this mind, especially in regard to denotative and connotative (see Chapter 1) meaning. Wrench, Goding, Johnson, and Attias (2011) use this example to explain the difference:

When we hear or use the word “blue,” we may be referring to a portion of the visual spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nano-meters. You could also say that the color in question is an equal mixture of both red and green light. While both of these are technically correct ways to interpret the word “blue,” we’re pretty sure that neither of these definitions is how you thought about the word. When hearing the word “blue,” you may have thought of your favorite color, the color of the sky on a spring day, or the color of a really ugly car you saw in the parking lot. When people think about language, there are two different types of meanings that people must be aware of: denotative and connotative. (p. 407)

Denotative meaning is the specific meaning associated with a word. We sometimes refer to denotative meanings as dictionary definitions. The [scientific] definitions provided above for the word “blue” are examples of definitions that might be found in a dictionary. Connotative meaning is the idea suggested by or associated with a word at a cultural or personal level. In addition to the examples above, the word “blue” can evoke many other ideas:

  • State of depression (feeling blue)
  • Indication of winning (a blue ribbon)
  • Side during the Civil War (blues vs. grays)
  • Sudden event (out of the blue).
  • States that lean toward the Democratic Party in their voting
  • A slang expression for obscenity (blue comedy)

Language is not just something we use; it is part of who we are and how we think. When we talk about language, we have to use words to do so, and language is also hard to separate from who we are. Each of us has our own way of expressing ourselves. Even more, it is almost impossible to separate language from thinking. Many people think the federal government should enact a law that only English is spoken in the United States (in government offices, schools, etc.). This is opposed by some groups because it seems discriminatory to immigrants, based on the belief that everyone’s language is part of his or her identity and self-definition.

Not only is language about who we are; it is about power. In fact, some educational and political theorists believe that language is all about power. For instance, euphemisms are often used to make something unpleasant sound more tolerable. In one of the more well-known examples of the use of euphemisms, the government commonly tries to use language to “soften” what many would see as bad. During the Vietnam War, “air support” was invented to cover the real meaning: “bombing.” When you hear air support, you probably think “planes bringing supplies in,” not “bombing.”

Even today, terms like “revenue enhancement” are used instead of “tax increases.” The word euphemism has at its core “eu,” (which is a prefix from Greek meaning “good” or “pleasant”) and “phem” (a root word for speaking). Just as blasphemy is speaking evil about sacred things, “euphemism” is “pleasant speaking about unpleasant things.” We use euphemisms every day, but we have to be careful not to obscure meaning or use them deceptively.

There’s an old saying in debate, “He who defines the terms wins the debate.” In the 1988 election, George H.W. Bush was running against Michael Dukakis, who was the governor of Massachusetts. Vice President Bush was able to stick a label on Dukakis and it stuck, that of “liberal.” He not only labeled Governor Dukakis, but he also defined what “liberal” meant. The word was in disuse after that, and you don’t hear it as much now. The word in use now is “progressive.” Unfortunately, this incident in 1988 politics obscured the fact that the U.S. has always been a “liberal” democratic republic. The word “liberal” has shifted meaning, another trait of language, since meaning exists in the minds of users, not in some protected, never-changing space or form. In the majority of Americans’ minds, “liberal” has become associated with specific political positions rather than a form of government in general.

To most people “progressive” sounds better, although an historian could argue the word is technically being used incorrectly. It doesn’t matter, because a word doesn’t “have” meaning; meaning exists in the minds of people using the word. If “progressive” hits people and evokes or stirs up ideas of forward-thinking, young, active, problem-solving people, then good. For most people it doesn’t bring up pictures of Woodrow Wilson and suffragists.

These examples bring up another issue with language: words change meaning over time, or more specifically, the meaning we attached to them changes. “Pretty” used to mean “clever” 250 years ago. “Prevent” meant to “precede,” not to keep from happening. Language is simply not static, as much as we might like it to be. One of the main reasons we find Shakespeare daunting is that so many of the Elizabethan words either no longer are used or they have changed meanings.

With regard to the use of language for power, even unknowingly, feminists in the 1970s argued that the common way we use English language was biased against women. King-sized means “big and powerful,” but “queen-sized” means “for overweight women.” “Master” was not equivalent to “mistress.” “Madame” had taken on a bad connotation, even though it should have been equivalent to “sir.” Many words referring to women had to add a suffix that was often “less than,” such as “-ess” or “-ette” or “co-ed.” In the last thirty years we have gotten away from that, so that you often hear a female actor referred to as “actor” rather than “actress,” but old habits die hard.

We see another example of power in language in the abortion debate. Prior to 1973, abortions could be obtained legally, to some extent, in three states: California, New York, and Hawaii. After the Roe v. Wade decision in January of 1973, they could, at least theoretically, be obtained in all fifty states. Roe v. Wade did not make abortions legal so much as it made anti-abortion laws illegal or unconstitutional, so the effect was generally the same. The people who were against abortion were now on the defensive, and they had to start fighting. It’s generally better to be “pro-”something rather than “anti-”something, so they became “pro-life.” Those favoring abortion rights then automatically became “pro-death.” One side had defined the terms of the debate, and the other had to come up with something comparable. “Pro-choice” takes advantage of the American belief in capitalism and freedoms.

These examples show how “defining the terms” gives a person control of the discourse. As you progress as a public speaker, you will become more aware of the power certain words have over audiences. An ethical communicator will use language in a way that encourages respect for others, freedom of thought, and informed decision making. First, however, a speaker should seek to meet the standards of clarity, effectiveness, appropriateness, and elegance in language, which are discussed in the next section.

Standards for Language in Public Speaking

Clear language is powerful language. Clarity is the first concern of a public speaker when it comes to choosing how to phrase the ideas of his or her speech. If you are not clear, specific, precise, detailed, and sensory with your language, you won’t have to worry about being emotional or persuasive, because you won’t be understood. There are many aspects of clarity in language, listed below.

Achieving Clarity

The first aspect of clarity is concreteness. We usually think of concreteness as the opposite of abstraction. Language that evokes many different visual images in the minds of your audience is abstract language. Unfortunately, when abstract language is used, the images evoked might not be the ones you really want to evoke. A word such as “art” is very abstract; it brings up a range of mental pictures or associations: dance, theatre, painting, drama, a child’s drawing on a refrigerator, sculpture, music, etc. When asked to identify what an abstract term like “art” means, twenty people will have twenty different ideas.

Figure 10.1 - Ladder of Abstraction

Figure 10.1 – Ladder of Abstraction

Figure 10.2 - Renaissance David (Michelangelo) vs. Bernini’s David.

Figure 10.2 – Renaissance David (Michelangelo) vs. Bernini’s David.

In order to show how language should be more specific, the “ladder of abstraction” (Hayakawa, 1939) was developed. The ladder of abstraction in Figure 10.1 helps us see how our language can range from abstract (general and sometimes vague) to very precise and specific (such as an actual person that everyone in your audience will know). You probably understood the ladder in Figure 10.2 until it came to the word “Baroque.” At Bernini’s, you might get confused if you do not know much about art history. If the top level said “Bernini’s David,” a specific sculpture, that would be confusing to some because while almost everyone is familiar with Michelangelo’s David, Bernini’s version is very different. It’s life-sized, moving, and clothed. Bernini’s is as much a symbol of the Baroque Age as Michelangelo’s is of the Renaissance. But unless you’ve taken an art history course, the reference, though very specific, is meaningless to you, and even worse, it might strike you as showing off. In fact, to make my point, here they are in Figure 10.2. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Related to the issue of specific vs. abstract is the use of the right word. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” For example, the words “prosecute” and “persecute” are commonly confused, but not interchangeable. Two others are peremptory/pre-emptive and prerequisites/perquisites. Can you think of other such word pair confusion?

In the attempt to be clear, which is your first concern, you will also want to be simple and familiar in your language. Familiarity is a factor of attention (Chapter 7); familiar language draws in the audience. Simple does not mean simplistic, but the avoidance of multi-syllable words. If a speaker said, “A collection of pre-adolescence fabricated an obese personification comprised of compressed mounds of minute aquatic crystals,” you might recognize it as “Some children made a snowman,” but maybe not. The language is not simple or familiar and therefore does not communicate well, although the words are correct and do mean the same thing, technically.

Along with language needing to be specific and correct, language can use appropriate similes and metaphors to become clearer. Literal language does not use comparisons like similes and metaphors; figurative language uses comparisons with objects, animals, activities, roles, or historical or literary figures. Literal says, “The truck is fast.” Figurative says “The truck is as fast as…“ or “The truck runs like…” or “He drives that truck like Kyle Busch at Daytona.” Similes use some form of “like” or “as” in the comparisons. Metaphors are direct comparisons, such as “He is Kyle Busch at Daytona when he gets behind the wheel of that truck.” Here are some more examples of metaphors:

Love is a battlefield.

Upon hearing the charges, the accused clammed up and refused to speak without a lawyer.

Every year a new crop of activists is born.

For rhetorical purposes, metaphors are considered stronger, but both can help you achieve clearer language, if chosen wisely. To think about how metaphor is stronger than simile, think of the difference “Love is a battlefield” and “Love is like a battlefield.” Speakers are encouraged to pick their metaphors and not overuse them. Also, avoid mixed metaphors, as in this example: “That’s awfully thin gruel for the right wing to hang their hats on.” Or “He found himself up a river and had to change horses.” The mixed metaphor here is the use of “up a river” and “change horses” together; you would either need to use an all river-based metaphor (dealing with boats, water, tides, etc.) or a metaphor dealing specifically with horses. The example above about a “new crop” “being born,” is actually a mixed metaphor, since crops aren’t born, but planted and harvested. Additionally, in choosing metaphors and similes, speakers want to avoid clichés, discussed next.

Clichés are expressions, usually similes, that are predictable. You know what comes next because they are overused and sometimes out of date. Clichés do not have to be linguistic—we often see clichés in movies, such as teen horror films where you know exactly what will happen next! It is not hard to think of clichés: “Scared out of my . . .” or “When life gives you lemons. . .” or “All is fair in. . .” or, when describing a reckless driver, “She drives like a . . . “ If you filled in the blanks with “wits,” “make lemonade,” “love and war,” “or “maniac,” those are clichés.

Clichés are not just a problem because they are overused and boring; they also sometimes do not communicate what you need, especially to audiences whose second language is English. “I will give you a ballpark figure” is not as clear as “I will give you an estimate,” and assumes the person is familiar with American sports. Therefore, they also will make you appear less credible in the eyes of the audience because you are not analyzing them and taking their knowledge, background, and needs into account. As the United States becomes more diverse, being aware of your audience members whose first language is not English is a valuable tool for a speaker.

Additionally, some clichés are so outdated that no one knows what they mean. “The puppy was as cute as a button” is an example. You might hear your great-grandmother say this, but who really thinks buttons are cute nowadays? Clichés are also imprecise. Although clichés do have a comfort level to them, comfort puts people to sleep. Find fresh ways, or just use basic, literal language. “The bear was big” is imprecise in terms of giving your audience an idea of how frightful an experience faced by a bear would be. “The bear was as big as a house” is a cliché and an exaggeration, therefore imprecise. A better alternative might be, “The bear was two feet taller than I am when he stood on his back legs.” The opposite of clichés is clear, vivid, and fresh language.

In trying to avoid clichés, use language with imagery, or sensory language. This is language that makes the recipient smell, taste, see, hear, and feel a sensation. Think of the word “ripe.” What is “ripe?” Do ripe fruits feel a certain way? Smell a certain way? Taste a certain way? Ripe is a sensory word. Most words just appeal to one sense, like vision. Think of color. How can you make the word “blue” more sensory? How can you make the word “loud” more sensory? How would you describe the current state of your bedroom or dorm room to leave a sensory impression? How would you describe your favorite meal to leave a sensory impression? A thunderstorm to leave a sensory impression?


Poetry uses much imagery, so to end this section on fresh, clear language, here is a verse from “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth. Notice the metaphors (“daffodils dancing,” “host,” which brings to mind great heavenly numbers), simile (“as the stars”) and the imagery (“golden” rather than “yellow,” and other appeals to feeling and sight):

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the Milky Way.


Language achieves effectiveness by communicating the right message to the audience. Clarity contributes to effectiveness, but there are some other aspects of effectiveness. To that end, language should be a means of inclusion and identification, rather than exclusion. Let’s establish this truth: Language is for communication; communication is symbolic, and language is the main (but not only) symbol system we use for communication. If language is for communication, then its goal should be to bring people together and to create understanding.

Unfortunately, we habitually use language for exclusion rather than inclusion. We can push people away with our word choices rather than bringing them together. We discussed the concepts of stereotyping and totalizing in Chapter 2, and they serve as examples of what we’re talking about here. What follows are some examples of language that can exclude members of your audience from understanding what you are saying.


Jargon (which we discussed in Chapter 2) used in your profession or hobby should only be used with audiences who share your profession or hobby. Not only will the audience members who don’t share your profession or hobby miss your meaning, but they will feel that you are not making an honest effort to communicate or are setting yourself above them in intelligence or rank. Lawyers are often accused of using “legalese,” but other professions and groups do the same. If an audience member does not understand your references, jargon, or vocabulary, it is unlikely that he or she will sit there and say, “This person is so smart! I wish I could be smart like this speaker.” The audience member is more likely to be thinking, “Why can’t this speaker use words we understand and get off the high horse?” (which I admit, is a cliché!)

What this means for you is that you need to be careful about assumptions of your audience’s knowledge and their ability to interpret jargon. For example, if you are trying to register for a class at Dalton State and your adviser asks for the CRN, most other people would have no idea what you are talking about. Acronyms, such NPO, are common in jargon. Those trained in the medical field know it is based on the Latin for “nothing by mouth.” The military has many acronyms, such as MOS (military occupational specialty, or career field in civilian talk). If you are speaking to an audience who does not know the jargon of your field, using it will only make them annoyed by the lack of clarity.

Sometimes we are not even aware of our jargon and its inadvertent effects. A student once complained to one of the authors about her reaction when she heard that she had been “purged.” The word sounds much worse than the meaning it had in that context, which that her name was taken off the official roll for nonpayment at the beginning of the semester.


The whole point of slang is for a subculture or group to have its own code, almost like secret words. Once slang is understood by the larger culture, it is no longer slang and may be classified as “informal” or “colloquial” language. “Bling” was slang; now it’s in the dictionary. Sports have a great deal of slang used by the players and fans that then gets used in everyday language. For example, “That was a slam dunk” is used to describe something easy, not just in basketball. At the authors’ college, many groups and organizations “paint the rock” located on the campus quad. Anyone not affiliated with our campus would probably be a little lost if you excitedly told them that you “painted the rock for spirit week.”

Complicated vocabulary

If a speaker used the word “recalcitrant,” some audience members would know the meaning or figure it out (“Calci-”is like calcium, calcium is hard, etc.), but many would not. It would make much more sense for them to use a word readily understandable–“stubborn.” Especially in oral communication, we should use language that is immediately accessible. However, do not take this to mean “dumb down for your audience.” It means being clear and not showing off. For a speaker to say “I am cognizant of the fact that…” instead of “I know” or “I am aware of…” adds nothing to communication.

Profanity and cursing

It is difficult to think of many examples, other than artistic or comedy venues, where profanity or cursing would be effective or useful with most audiences, so this kind of language is generally discouraged.


Another aspect of effectiveness is that your language should enhance your credibility. First, audiences trust speakers who use clear, vivid, respectful, engaging, and honest language. On the other hand, audiences tend not to trust speakers who use language that excludes others or who exhibit uneducated language patterns. All of us make an occasional grammatical or usage error. However, constant verb and pronoun errors and just plain getting words confused will hurt the audience’s belief that you are competent and know what you are talking about. In addition, a speaker who uses language and references that are not immediately accessible or that are unfamiliar will have diminished credibility. Finally, you should avoid the phrase “I guess” in a speech. A credible speaker should know what he/she is talking about.

Rhetorical Techniques

There are several traditional techniques that have been used to engage audiences and make ideas more attention-getting and memorable. These are called rhetorical techniques. Although “rhetorical” is associated with persuasive speech, these techniques are also effective with other types of speeches. We will not mention all of them here, but some important ones are listed below. Several of them are based on a form of repetition. You can refer to an Internet source for a full list of the dozens of rhetorical devices.

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in a sentence or passage. As such, it is a kind of rhyme. Minister Tony Campolo said, “When Jesus told his disciples to pray for the kingdom, this was no pie in the sky by and by when you die kind of prayer.”

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in a sentence or passage. In his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Dr. Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Not only does this sentence use alliteration, it also uses the next rhetorical technique on our list, antithesis.

Antithesis is the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced or parallel words, phrases, or grammatical structures. Usually antithesis goes: Not this, but this. John F. Kennedy’s statement from his 1961 inaugural address is one of the most quoted examples of antithesis: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In that speech he gave another example, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Parallelism is the repetition of sentence structures. It can be useful for stating your main ideas. Which one of these sounds better?

“Give me liberty or I’d rather die.”

“Give me liberty or give me death.”

The second one uses parallelism. Quoting again from JFK’s inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The repetition of the three-word phrases in this sentence (including the word “any” in each) is an example of parallelism.

Anaphora is a succession of sentences beginning with the same word or group of words. In his inaugural address, JFK began several succeeding paragraphs with “To”: “To those old allies,” “To those new states,” “To those people,” etc.

Hyperbole is intentional exaggeration for effect. Sometimes it is for serious purposes, other times for humor. Commonly we use hyperbolic language in our everyday speech to emphasize our emotions, such as when we say “I’m having the worst day ever” or “I would kill for a piece of gum right now.” Neither of those statements is (hopefully) true, but it stresses to others the way you are feeling. Ronald Reagan, who was often disparaged for being the oldest president, would joke about his age. In one case he said, “The chamber is celebrating an important milestone this week: your 70th anniversary. I remember the day you started.”

Irony is the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. Although most people think they understand irony as sarcasm (such as saying to a friend who trips, “That’s graceful”), it is a much more complicated topic. A speaker may use it when he professes to say one thing but clearly means something else, or he says something that is obviously untrue. Irony in oral communication can be difficult to use in a way that affects everyone equally.

Using these techniques alone will not make you an effective speaker. Dr. King and President Kennedy combined them with strong metaphors and images as well; for example, Dr. King described the promises of the founding fathers as a “blank check” returned with the note “insufficient funds” as far as the black Americans of his time were concerned. That was a very concrete, human, and familiar metaphor to his listeners and still speaks to us today.


Appropriateness relates to several categories involving how persons and groups should be referred to and addressed based on inclusiveness and context. The term “politically correct” has been overused to describe the growing sensitivity to how the power of language can marginalize or exclude individuals and groups. While there are silly extremes such as the term “vertically challenged” for “short,” these humorous examples overlook the need to be inclusive about language. Overall, people and groups should be respected and referred to in the way they choose to be. Using inclusive language in your speech will help ensure you aren’t alienating or diminishing any members of your audience.

Gender-Inclusive Language

The first common form of non-inclusive language is language that privileges one of the sexes over the other. There are three common problem areas that speakers run into while speaking: using “he” as generic, using “man” to mean all humans, and gender-typing jobs. Consider the statement, “Every morning when an officer of the law puts on his badge, he risks his life to serve and protect his fellow citizens.” Obviously, both male and female police officers risk their lives when they put on their badges.

A better way to word the sentence would be, “Every morning when officers of the law put on their badges, they risk their lives to serve and protect their fellow citizens.” Notice that in the better sentence, we made the subject plural (“officers”) and used neutral pronouns (“they” and “their”) to avoid the generic “he.” Likewise, speakers of English have traditionally used terms like “man,” and “mankind” when referring to both females and males. Instead of using the word “man,” refer to the “human race.”

Table 10.1 - Gender-inclusive job titles.

Table 10.1 – Gender-inclusive job titles.

The last common area where speakers get into trouble with gender and language has to do with job titles. It is not unusual for people to assume, for example, that doctors are male and nurses are female. As a result, they may say “she is a woman doctor” or “he is a male nurse” when mentioning someone’s occupation, perhaps not realizing that the statements “she is a doctor” and “he is a nurse” already inform the listener as to the sex of the person holding that job.

Ethnic Identity

Ethnic identity refers to a group an individual identifies with based on a common culture. For example, within the United States we have numerous ethnic groups, including Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Japanese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Cuban Americans, and Mexican Americans. As with the earlier example of “male nurse,” avoid statements such as “The committee is made up of four women and a Vietnamese man.” All that should be said is, “The committee is made up of five people.”

Table 10.2 - Inclusive Language for Disabilities

Table 10.2 – Inclusive Language for Disabilities

If for some reason gender and ethnicity have to be mentioned—and usually it does not—the gender and ethnicity of each member should be mentioned equally. “The committee is made up of three European-American women, one Latina, and one Vietnamese male.” In recent years, there has been a trend toward steering inclusive language away from broad terms like “Asians” and “Hispanics” because these terms are not considered precise labels for the groups they actually represent. If you want to be safe, the best thing you can do is ask a couple of people who belong to an ethnic group how they prefer to be referred to in that context.


The last category of exclusive versus inclusive language that causes problems for some speakers relates to individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities or forms of mental illness. Sometimes it happens that we take a characteristic of someone and make that the totality or all of what that person is. For example, some people are still uncomfortable around persons who use wheelchairs and don’t know how to react. They may totalize and think that the wheelchair defines and therefore limits the user. The person in the wheelchair might be a great guitarist, sculptor, parent, public speaker, or scientist, but that’s not seen, only the wheelchair.

Although the terms “visually impaired” and “hearing impaired” are sometimes used for “blind” and “deaf,” this is another situation where the person should be referred to as he or she prefers. “Hearing impaired” denotes a wide range of hearing deficit, as does “visually impaired. “Deaf” and “blind” are not generally considered offensive by these groups.

Another example is how to refer to what used to be called “autism.” Saying someone is “autistic” is similar to the word “retarded” in that neither is appropriate any longer. Preferable terms are “a person with an autism diagnosis” or “a person on the autism spectrum.” In place of “retarded,” “a person with intellectual disabilities” should be used.

Other Types of Appropriateness

Language in a speech should be appropriate to the speaker and the speaker’s background and personality, to the context, to the audience, and to the topic. Let’s say that you’re an engineering student. If you’re giving a presentation in an engineering class, you can use language that other engineering students will know. On the other hand, if you use that engineering vocabulary in a public speaking class, many audience members will not understand you. As another example, if you are speaking about the Great Depression to an audience of young adults or recent immigrants, you can’t assume they will know the meaning of terms like “New Deal” and “WPA,” which would be familiar to an audience of senior citizens. Audience analysis is a key factor in choosing the language to use in a speech.

Likewise, the language you may employ if you’re addressing a student assembly in a high school auditorium will differ from the language you would use at a business meeting in a hotel ballroom. If you are speaking about the early years of The Walt Disney Company, would you want to refer to Walt Disney as a “thaumaturgic” individual (i.e., one who works wonders or miracles)? While the word “thaumaturgic” may be accurate, is it the most appropriate for the topic at hand?

Developing Your Ability to Use Effective Language in Public Speaking

At this point, we will make some applications and suggestions about using language as you grow as a public speaker.

First, get in the habit of using “stipulated definitions” with concrete examples (defining operationally). In other words, define your terms for the audience. If you are using jargon, a technical term, a word that has multiple meanings in different contexts, or an often-misunderstood word, you can say at the beginning of the body of your speech, “In this speech I am going to be using the word,”X,” and what I mean by it is…” And then the best way to define a word is with a picture or example of what you mean, and perhaps also an example of what you don’t mean (visual aids can help here). Don’t worry; this is not insulting to most audiences if the word is technical or unfamiliar to them. On the other hand, as mentioned earlier in the textbook, providing dictionary definitions of common words such as “love” or “loyalty” would be insulting to an audience and pretty boring.

Second, develop specific language. The general semantics movement suggested ways to develop more specific language that reflects the imperfection of our perceptions and the fact that reality changes. You can develop specific language by the following:

  • Distinguishing between individuals and the group (that is, avoid stereotyping). Arab 1 is not Arab 2 is not Arab 3, etc., and none of them are all the Arabs in the world.
  • Specifying time and place of behavior instead of making broad statements. What was a true of a person in 1999 is not necessarily true of the person now.
  • Using names for jobs or roles (“accountants,” “administrative assistants,” “instructors”) instead of “people” or “workers.”
  • Avoid “always/never” language. “Always” and “never” usually do not reflect reality and tend to make listeners defensive.
  • Avoid confusing opinion for fact. If I say, “Forrest Gump is a stupid movie,” I am stating an opinion in the language of fact. If you preface opinions with “I believe,” or “It is my opinion” you will be truthful and gain the appearance of being fair-minded and non­-dogmatic. What should be said is “The first time I saw Forrest Gump, I didn’t realize it was a farce, but after I saw it a second time, I understood it better.” This sentence is much more specific and clarifying than “Forrest Gump is a stupid movie.”

Third, personalize your language. In a speech it’s fine to use personal pronouns as opposed to third person. That means “I,” “me,” “we,” “us,” “you,” etc. are often helpful in a speech. It gives more immediacy to the speech. Be careful of using “you” for examples that might be embarrassing. “Let’s say you are arrested for possession of a concealed weapon,” sounds like the audience members are potential criminals.

Finally, develop your vocabulary, but not to show it off. One of the benefits of a college education is that your vocabulary will expand greatly, and it should. A larger vocabulary will give you access to more complicated reading material and allow you to understand the world better. But knowing the meaning of a more complicated word doesn’t mean you have to use it with every audience.


Although the placement of this chapter may seem to indicate that language choices, or what the ancient rhetoricians called “style,” are not as important as other parts of speaking, language choices are important from the very beginning of your speech preparation, even to your research and choice of search terms. Audience analysis will help you to develop language that is clear, vivid, appropriate, credible, and persuasive.

Something to Think About

What are some of the clichés and slang that have become popular recently? What do they mean? Why would they not be useful in public speaking? As a class, check out the Banned Words website by Lake Superior State University.


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Exploring Communication in the Real World Copyright © 2020 by Chris Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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