Why and How Power Verbs Can Pump Up Your Speeches and Presentations
Although no sources can trace it to him, an oft-used quotation is frequently attributed to Plutarch: “When Cicero spoke, people said, ‘How well Cicero speaks!’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’” The point is, the purpose of public speaking is usually—but not always—to persuade. As Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.” So whenever we speak, we are using a powerful device. Thomas Fuller might have said it best: “When the heart is afire, some sparks will fly out of the mouth.” This book gives you some sparks.
This is not a style book. Nor is it a book on public speaking, per se. If that is what you are looking for, you can put this book down—but not too fast. You might want to read a little further; it might be just what you are looking for.
In this book, you will not learn specific skills of public speaking, oration, or rhetoric—or even how to deliver a good presentation. You will not learn in depth the skills of visualizing; managing stage fright; channeling your message; adapting to your audience; maintaining eye contact; using tone, cadence, and pitch; breathing properly; using hand gestures; selecting a topic; or handling questions. This book will make you a more powerful communicator because it helps you choose powerful verbs—the spark of sentences that people will remember. Power verbs are the flame that make your phrases and sentences ignite people’s passions. Power verbs are the kindling that illuminates purpose and makes people want to take action ... to march on Philip.
Why verbs, you might be asking? Not just verbs, but power verbs. First, more books have been written on language skills and verbs than you can imagine, and the world does not need another one of those books. Second, it would not be much fun to write or read another boring language skills book. If those books were so interesting, wouldn’t there be a movie about one of them by now? Finally, this isn’t a book about the old standby verbs. Everyone knows the 16 basic English language verbs: be, do, have, come, go, see, seem, give, take, keep, make, put, send, say, let, get.
Power verbs are emotionally edgy and powerfully positioned, with punch and pizzazz. Hundreds of books, guides, blogs, and more can help people learn how to put a speech together. Numerous guidebooks walk through writing and delivering a speech. However, in my 35 years of experience in giving hundreds of speeches and presentations, I’ve learned one fundamental truth: The power of the words selected and way they are delivered—the rhythm—make the greatest difference in the success of the presentation.
So why not write one book with every piece of advice, technique, and approach available? Simple: a fundamental principle called Pareto’s Law, or the 80/20 principle. Simply stated, this widely accepted principle posits that the vast majority (the 80 percent) of all explanations for things such as solutions to problems and answers to questions are usually found in the smallest number of options (the 20 percent). So 80 percent of a great presentation or speech is in the 20 percent category for the proper words chosen and the rhythm in which they are delivered. As Dr. Frank Luntz says, “It’s not what you say—it’s what people hear” (Luntz, 2007, p. xi). Your audience translates your message through a prism of their own biases, interests, knowledge, awareness, feelings, attention span, and many other interpretative filters. Once you have spoken words, they no longer are yours. Other people will translate them, evaluate them, and measure them. Choose your words carefully—make them appropriate for the situation, and be aware of the power of words.
Poorly chosen words or speech used for hubris or evil can impact self-esteem, destroy morale, kill enthusiasm, inflame bias, incite hatred, lower expectations, and hold people back. Experts are learning more about the connection between words and people’s human spirit and health. We’ve known for some time that insults and verbal harassment can make us physically and mentally ill. Inappropriate words can make work and home toxic, abusive environments. Empirical studies show that people who live or work in toxic environments suffer more colds, flu, heart attacks, depression—more of almost all chronic physical and emotional disorders than people who report living or working in happy, enjoyable, caring environments.
Hiding almost in plain sight for years, and now clearly recognized, is the connection between physical violence and words. Rarely does physical violence occur without some sort of verbal preamble. The old parental advice that sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you is simply bad advice. On the other hand, well-chosen words or speech for the benefit of good can motivate, inspiring others to greater feats and deeds. They can offer hope, create vision, impact others’ beliefs and behavior, and alter the results of strategies, objectives, and, overall, people’s lives.
Nationally syndicated columnist Peggy Noonan knows a thing or two about words and how they impact us. She recently wrote about the advice Clare Booth Luce once gave the newly inaugurated U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Luce was truly a remarkable woman. Her career spanned seven decades and nearly as many professional interests—journalism, politics, the theater, diplomacy, and intelligence.
According to Noonan, Luce had a conversation in the White House with her old friend John F. Kennedy in 1962. She told him, “A great man is one sentence.” That is, his leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t need to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. Think of “He preserved the union and freed the slaves” and “He lifted us out of a great depression and helped win a world war.” You don’t need to be told that the answers are Lincoln and FDR.
Luce wondered what Kennedy’s sentence would be. Her advice to him was to concentrate, to know the great themes and demands of his time, and focus on them. It was good advice. History has imperatives, and sometimes they are clear. Sometimes they are met, and sometimes not. When they’re clear and met, you get quite a sentence (Noonan, Wall Street Journal, 26 June 2009).
Fast-forwarding to more contemporary times, the historic 2012 presidential debates might have had more significance than previous debates because of the words the candidates chose—their rhythm and nonverbal physical cues. A big part of successfully communicating depends on how well we negotiate the paradox of how the vast majority of human communication is conducted. We know from empirical research that more than 97 percent of human communication involves nonverbal cues (body language).
To give a successful presentation, speech, or presidential debate performance, we must compose a sophisticated but seamless message that unites our words in the proper rhythm and uses the corresponding nonverbal cues. If our words don’t match our nonverbal cues, or vice versa, the audience will be confused and the message will be diminished—or, worse, ignored.
In the world of movies, theater, art, and entertainment, words have a dramatic impact. In a recent Wall Street Journal edition, a special report entitled “What’s In a Name?” explored the original titles for a number of box office successes. For example, the Humphrey Bogart classic Casablanca had an original title of Everybody Comes to Ricks. The Julia Roberts/Richard Gere block-buster Pretty Woman had an original title of $3,000. The successful G.I. Jane was slated to be released as In Defense of Honor. And the world might not have ever remembered Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Anhedonia, but we do remember Annie Hall (Wall Street Journal, 19 October 2012, p. D1).
Words have the power to affect both the physical and emotional health of people to whom we speak, for better and for worse. Words used to influence are inspiring, uplifting, and challenging; they encourage, motivate, and persuade. They can be visionary; they can change people’s lives for the better. Words used with power, coercion, force, and deception have a short-term impact, if they have any at all.
Verbal communication is a powerful human instrument, and we must learn to use it properly. We need to learn to think not only about speaking in new ways, but also about language, human nature, psychology, and sociology.
Let’s Take a Moment and Think About Language
One of the peculiar characteristics of our culture involves how we communicate. Communication is perhaps the most important human function in which we engage, but we don’t do it very well and aren’t trained well to do so. We know that about 97 percent of human communication is through nonverbal cues or by use of mostly facial expressions and hand gestures. Because we don’t trust our instincts driven by our amygdala (which some refer to as our animal brain) as much as we should, we have trouble absorbing the nonverbal human communications adequately.
Think about all our acculturation that teaches us to deny our amygdala-driven instincts: “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” “Don’t jump to conclusions,” “Look before you leap,” “Act in haste, repent at your leisure,” “We should have a committee meeting to talk it over first,” and so on. In spite of how much communication nonverbal cues transfer, our schools provide very little training to improve human nonverbal perception.
For the 3 percent of human communication that is conveyed by language, we generally don’t listen as effectively as we should. Furthermore, our educational system often fails students and society by giving them minimal instruction in communication skills (writing, speaking, and listening skills). Considering that we express almost every desire, need, emotion, feeling, want, expectation, demand, and frustration to other humans via communication, it is surprising and disappointing that lower forms of life do a better job of communicating.