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Using Words in Special Ways

We know that more than 97% of human communication involves nonverbal cues (body language). To have a successful presentation, speech, or presidential debate performance, we must compose a sophisticated but seamless message, uniting our words in the proper rhythm, and use the corresponding nonverbal cues. If the words chosen do not match the nonverbal cues or vice versa the audience might get confused and the message might 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 titled “What’s In a Name?” discussed a number of box office successes that might have a different result if their original titles had not been changed.

For example, The Bogart classic Casablanca had an original title Everybody Comes to Ricks. The Julia Roberts/Richard Gere blockbuster Pretty Woman had the original title $3,000. The successful G.I. Jane was supposed to be released as In Defense of Honor. The world might not have ever remembered Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Anhedonia, which was fortunately changed to Annie Hall (Wall Street Journal, Arena, October 19, 2012, p. D1).

Throughout history, many memorable quotes have demonstrated how what is said is just as important as how it is said. For example, there is an old story that went around Washington, D.C., about Lyndon B. Johnson when he was stumping for state political office, he was surpassingly debating an opponent and was asked the difference between himself and the opposing candidate. He allegedly replied, “He matriculated and I never matriculated.”

Some of the most famous speeches made by Abraham Lincoln are memorable not just for the message, but for the fact that he condensed an enormous amount of information into them. It was not only the power of his words, but also his cadence that made the impact of the speeches more powerful. His second inaugural speech was only 700 words, and the Gettysburg Address was just under 3 minutes long. But Lincoln understood that he could make his simple words more powerful by altering the rate at which he delivered those words, the volume changes during the speech, the differences in pitch and tone (whether he spoke in a low deeper voice of wisdom or a higher trailing off voice of authority and the occasional injection of silence or what we call an intentional pause).

It really comes down to a simple rule—Keep it simple. The fact is most audiences have short attention spans—for many reasons—and you need to cater to this.

Paint pictures with your words. The audience needs to be able to hear what you are thinking.

The human brain thinks in a sequence of images that complete a thought and that can be shared as a story, example, case, formula, or in other descriptive ways. If your presentation goal is to describe how to create a beautifully decorated birthday cake, the approach should be a step-by-step linear link to the finished cake. For example, you could begin by discussing the eggs used, how much flour is needed, and how they are blended together. You could then discuss how the butter and baking powder are blended in with the mixture, the batter is poured into a pan, and then the pan placed in the oven. Once the cake is finished baking it is cooled and then decorated with icing.

If you mention a birthday cake most humans simply see the end result of a decorated birthday cake, so trying to tell an audience just the end result of anything without sharing the building blocks or sequence of steps in a story leaves them cold.

This approach works for any topic or idea. Speakers need to tell their audience a story about the topic by dividing the topic into pieces or segments culminating in the finished or completed topic.

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