Even if you master all of the simple, smart, and practical tips from my book, Get to the Point!, you may still run into obstacles when you are trying to communicate something to an audience, like a postman tripping over the shoelaces he forgot to tie.
Here are some of those less-obvious challenges which you should consider “enemies” because they act in direct opposition to your goals as a communicator—and making your point effectively.
Enemy #1: “And”
The first pitfall is the seemingly innocuous word “and.” Most people like “and” because it helps them add items to the shopping carts of their points. The problem is, to have the greatest impact, you want to be in the one-item lane when you check out.
“And” is the biggest driver of a “split ends” problem, in which speakers try to cram multiple ideas into one point and consequently dilute the impact of each.
For example, revisit the first line of this post:
"Even if you master all of the simple, smart, and practical tips…"
“Simple,” “smart,” and “practical” convey different ideas and all are independently meaningful, but do they each carry the same weight in terms of implication and relevance?
Speakers may think each new word enhances clarity, but sometimes extra words have the opposite effect. We know that “more is less,” but we also need to understand that less is more.
It’s much easier to process: “Even if you master all of the practical tips…” which really implies the same thing.
As a further test, compare the immediate impact of:
"This approach will elevate and enhance our ability to be successful and save lives."
"This approach will save more lives."
To my eyes and ears, there’s no question which one is more instantly engaging.
Apply the “and” test to all of your prepared speeches and reports, asking yourself each time: Do I need all of these qualifiers? What do I gain and lose by using only the strongest one? Chances are you’ll gain more than you lose.
This doesn’t mean you have to remove all of your “and”s, but this test will likely kick out many of your weaker adjectives, making your point more striking and memorable as a result.
Enemy #2: “Badjectives”
Badjectives—descriptors so broad that they convey no value—are deceptive because they seem to project a clear impression. Who wouldn’t want to be part of something “excellent,” “great,” “terrific,” or “very good”? And of course, they’re handy for staying under the Twitter character limit.
But being so general robs your point of substance, and a point without substance is a Reuben without the corned beef.
An excellent tip to root out badjectives is to imagine your adjectives describing food, and see if they still convey useful meaning. What do we really know about a great hamburger, a fantastic sauce, or an awesome bowl of noodles? Very little. And when you’re not conveying value, you’re not conveying anything of substance. But tell me about a juicy burger, a spicy sauce, or a steaming hot bowl of noodles, and suddenly I’m hungry.
Whether you use them in a speech, in an email, in a compliment, or even in a Tweet, precise descriptors have a more powerful impact on your audience. So keep digging for words that say what you really mean.
As examples, consider the following lines, corrected to replace badjectives with specific ideas:
“This proposal is great will cut our costs by 20%.”
“This technology is awesome will enable us to save more lives. Let me show you how.”
“Laura, that was a very good idea your idea will help make our meetings much more productive! Thanks.”
“Global warming is a big problem an existential threat to humanity, and we must take steps to address it.”
Enemy #3: “Nonsense Words”
Obviously, you want to be making sense, and not nonsense. But these common words often fall into the category of nonsense:
In official Toastmasters meetings, a member is typically assigned the role of “Ah Counter,” and that person literally counts the number of times a speaker says one of these nonsense words.
But while it’s important to know how often you use nonsense crutches—especially knowing what your crutch words are—knowing them hardly puts you on the path to correcting them. It’s just hard to stop doing something instinctual, even when you know it’s wrong.
What you need is something to replace that destructive activity—a rhetorical Nicorette. In the case of nonsense words, the appropriate replacement is a pause. An intentional pause is one of your best communication allies because it creates time for you, suspense for your audience, and is typically forgotten by the audience later. So train yourself to sense when a nonsense word is coming, and utilize a pause instead.
Enemy #4: Apologies
One of the few “nevers” I share in workshops is never to apologize or even say “excuse me.” The problem with public apologies is that they’re like a big neon sign around your neck saying “I messed up.” Audiences remember apologies, and the words alone can do severe damage to the credibility you’ve built up to that point.
Remember that, by sharing your valuable points, you’re doing your audience a favor; your audience is not doing you a favor. So even if you have a word bobble, a cough, a skipped page, or a hiccup, there’s no need to apologize or be excused. Just move on. If necessary, correct without an apology:
“We had a 35% success rate—actually, a 75% success rate.”
In a related “never,” never say how nervous, unprepared, or intimidated you might be. You may be feeling these things, but don’t reveal them, because blurted admissions like these also decimate your credibility.
Consider “I’m nervous” code for “I’m not a professional.” If you’re nervous, keep plowing through, knowing that it’s the delivery of your point that matters, not the impression you’re making personally.
This article is based on an excerpt of Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Messages and Make Your Words Matter.
Joel Schwartzberg is the Senior Director of Strategic and Executive Communications for the ASPCA . A former national champion public speaker, Joel has been training corporate and individual clients to communicate more effectively since 2006.
For more tips on delivering a point that champions your best ideas, check out his book Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Messages and Make Your Words Matter.