"Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief." – Polonius, Hamlet Act 2, scene 2.

Countless public speakers inflict this on their audiences every day. For some reason, individuals are asked to speak, they feel that they must put on an air, and then they grope for complicated ten-dollar words when a short simple word would do. In the courtroom, you see lawyers doing this all the time. All of a sudden, when they stand to talk to the judge or a jury, it’s no longer that Mr. Smith lied to Mr. Jones – it’s “the defendant engaged in a series of contractual misrepresentation as to the plaintiff.” Or witnesses feel like they have to sound sophisticated. As a result, no cop gets out of his squad car; they only “exit the vehicle on the driver’s side.” And when CEOs or professors speak, they fall into the same trap of using big words when small ones will do. This, in fact, does not make you sound like a good public speaker; it makes you sound tiresome. 


Don't Let the Words Get in the Way of Your Message

In most public speeches, speakers often resort to multi-syllable words where a simple word would do. As a result, they use words they haven’t seen since taking the SAT or the ACT to get into college. Exercising complicated and elongated words to articulate eloquently your missive might have the effect of inflicting upon your listener a soporific consequence. Don’t do it. It’s one thing to cultivate a big vocabulary for understanding things; it’s quite another to indulge in the sort of look-at-me language. Remember, judges, audiences, and your listeners have limited ability and limited focus. Do you want them focusing on what a specific words means, or you want to get them to see your argument? A famous writer once said that great writing is like a window pane. And that, when I was a kid learning English never made sense to me until later. And what that means is that a window pane essentially stays out of the way and lets you see what matters. Likewise, when you deliver a speech, strip down the language so that you use the most forceful one-syllable word you can.

If you do that, you’ll soon find that many times, words that have multiple syllables are derived or taken from the Greek or the Latin, and that they sound sterile compared to the more graphic Anglo-Saxon version of the word: Eradicate versus kill, consequently versus so, elongate versus lengthen, verisimilitude versus truth, fornicate versus… well, you get the picture.

I’ll leave you with a passage from George Orwell, perhaps one of the greatest writers to have graced our planet. In an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” he describes how using complicated words – many of which have foreign roots as derivatives from the Greek or the Latin – effectively blunts what you try to say. It sterilizes your message. And that’s what (dishonest) politicians trying to justify unspeakable crimes try to do: “[T]he normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.”

Next time you deliver a speech, go through it and take out words with multiple syllables, and replace them with a one-syllable word if you can, or a two-syllable word if you cannot. I promise that as a result, you’ll find that your speech will be tighter, stronger, and more colorful (more constricted, formidable, and polychromatic).

Essays (Everyman's Library Classics & Contemporary Classics)
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