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by Claudia Brogan

Making the effort to continually improve and stretch your vocabulary is likely to pay off in spades.

When a speaker uses strong, descriptive words — and uses them correctly! — credibility is strengthened and audience members sit up and take notice.


Here are two specific reasons for using strong, descriptive words:

First, studies show that it is good for our own brains to increase brain capacity by stretching to learn new things. No need to do rote memorization of 20 random words, over and over. But more realistically and effectively, it works to accumulate one new vocabulary word per week that suits you and fits coherently with your topic matter. Practice using new words in context, saying them aloud.

Second, when a speaker uses a robust vocabulary, it demonstrates topical knowledge. I remember one performance review meeting when I was complimented for demonstrating deep knowledge of our company’s processes and content areas. To be candid, I had not done any deeper study of our company’s topics — what I had done, though, was focus for the previous 6 months on strengthening my vocabulary. I had consciously been practicing the use of terminology and descriptive words that would paint good, strong mental pictures for the meeting participants.

One thing I want to be clear about: We don’t need to use big, pretentious words just to make ourselves sound smarter than we are. We should actually NEVER use a word when we don’t know its meaning (just because we think it sounds fancy).

An insightful colleague of mine recently raised a question about when we should use these stronger vocabulary words, and when that may not be advisable. And I think the whole answer can be summarized in one word: context.

  • Know the context of your audience members: specifically, learn enough about them to know clearly whether they will be turned off or think you’re stuck up — in that case, do NOT use extraneous words (or, “Five dollar words,” as my dad used to call them).
  • Know the context of the topic you are covering: specifically, know the content so well that you can determine whether strong, ambitious vocabulary choices will get things off track or will make things confusing. In those cases, there is no need for word choices that distract the listeners.
  • Know how to use a good word well. Try not to “strand” a key word out in a sentence by itself. Don’t just say “That person was being so petulant.” That sentence, that context, gives us no hints. It’s a mystery. Give the word some context; give the listener a clue about meaning. Try instead to use a *fully descriptive* sentence that provides context — one that builds some hints right into it. Say instead, “She was petulant in her remarks — each one of us could hear the whining tone in her voice.”
  • Finally, know you. If using a good, hefty word suits you well, if it helps emphasize the point you are making with heft and with clarity, then leave it in. On the other hand, if it feels more like you are doing a Hat-Trick or playing a parlor game, then leave it out.

Recently I found an intriguing item for speakers to consider. Daniel Dalton developed a list of “32 of the most beautiful words in the English language” culled from his Twitter survey. Each word is a masterpiece. Each word fully, beautifully, succinctly describes a strong idea.

For any speaker who wants to add strength and flavor to the delivery of a speech, my best suggestion is to aspire to add words that will catch fire in the imagination of the listeners. Reading this list of beautiful words might give you just the curiosity you need to seek useful words. I think it is poignant and wonderful:

SONDER (n) The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own

Let us listen well to the great use of words and dive in to keep learning and practicing along the way.

Claudia Brogan is a speaker, trainer and facilitator who helps organizations by coaching presenters, leading collaborative meetings and problem-solving with groups and teams. Reach out to see how she can help you. 

Contact Claudia via email, through LinkedIn or by phone at 404-849-5182.