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Simple words, work best!

Home » Blog » Speaking Skills » Simple words, work best!



To express ideas effectively choose simple words. Don’t equate simple words with simple ideas.  Instead do what professional speakers do, use plain language to communicate well.

I work with professionals who often feel their English is not adequate enough to express their ideas. They feel they aren’t delivering the same meaning in English that they can in their native language.  The key is not learning elaborate vocabulary but finding the best simple word to express yourself. The choice of simple words in English creates a message that is direct and exacting.

An excellent resource to hear how speakers use plain language is TED Talks.  TED.com  is a global community of speakers whose talks are heard in over 100 languages.  TED speakers are passionate about sharing their ideas and use well chosen simple words that can be understood by everyone.

Simple Language

Simple language consists of words that are commonly used and mutually comprehensible. Simple language uses one- and  two-syllable words rather than “big” words.   “Manage” defined as “to take charge of” is a perfectly good verb to use rather than “administer” or “regulate” which doesn’t impart more meaning than its two-syllable cousin.

Simple language is free from jargon and idioms.  Jargon, as a language that is shared by a discipline or industry, is appropriate for colleagues.   But, overly used jargon can be off putting to individuals, not familiar with a specialized vocabulary.

Idioms are another language form to avoid. Popular idioms are a shorthand way to express ourselves. Their meaning, however, can’t be predicted by individual  words.  Idioms such as  “call the shots” and “run the show” are similar to  “manage” but not as clear-cut. Instead of making communication easier, idioms can act as a barrier to communication and won’t necessarily be understood by everyone.

Plain language may seem commonplace to you especially if your feel you need to impress your audience with your knowledge and expertise.  Or, if you are speaking about a complex subject, you may  feel the need to ante up your vocabulary with fancier words.  Remember, plain language speaks to everyone no matter their position in life. Simple language free of jargon and idioms conveys a message that is easily understood, less apt to confuse as well as more sincere and believable.

Complex ideas 

Sometimes speakers may feel the topic they are speaking about is so complex that they must use “big” multi-syllabic words. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality, the more complex the topic, the greater reason to use plain language. To explain complex ideas use one- and two-syllable words to effectively explain difficult-to-understand concepts and ideas. The complexity should be in what is being explained not in the words you are using.

Complex public policy speeches have been broken down using the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale measuring the number of syllables in a word and the length of sentences. These analyses reveal the use of simple words to explain complex governmental policies on immigration, social security and the economy. They are compelling examples of plain language used to explain intricate subjects.

Likewise, during political campaigns, politicians and their speech writers will address the public using slogans and short word expressions that are effective in their simplicity and easy to remember.

“Believe in America,” “Yes We Can,”  “Make Love Not War,” “Stay the Course,”  “You have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” are well-known, memorable short word expressions.

According to the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale, Presidents John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama have made liberal use of simple language in their speeches. In fact, President Kennedy’s speech writers concluded “to never use a three-syllable word when a two- or one-syllable word will do.”

Be Concise

To make every word count, rid your speech of wordy expressions and overused words.  Rather than saying “due to the fact” say “because.”  Rather than saying “we are in agreement with,” simply say “agree.”  Why say “in spite of the fact” when you  can say “although” or “despite?” Using wordy expressions sounds formulaic and trite rather than direct and original.

Another group of words to scrap are overly used words that litter our speech.  These are words that are act as fillers, such as “actually,”  “whatever,” “seriously,” “literally.”

“Actually, you won’t be taken seriously unless, you tell them what you think, literally. “Whatever?”  If you’ve ever heard anyone speak like this you’ll recognize some of the most popular overly-used words.

Finally try to express ideas with clarity and passion. Use plain language with precise meaning.  Listen to speeches presented on TED talks to hear and see how a global community of speakers uses simple words to entertain and inform.

Strive to use commonly understood words to deliver a straightforward presentation that is direct and descriptive. Use one- and two-syllable words and short sentences free of idioms and jargon.    Make every effort to be concise and filter out unnecessary or overused expressions. Remember you want to be understood by everyone and your ideas are worth sharing and being heard by all.


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