The Oxford Dictionary defines language as “the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.” Language is the thread that binds humanity. It enables us to give shape and structure to our thoughts, to express and exchange our ideas, and to voice our emotions and opinions.

Time and again it has been proven that language plays a pivotal role in public speaking. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”, is testimony to the power and efficacy of language in communication. The skilled craftsmanship with which he wove evocative language into the tapestry of his speech is one of the main reasons for it being one of the most memorable speeches in history.

One would assume that for those with a mastery and flair for language writing speeches would be a walk in the park.  Au contraire, most writers find it a challenge to write an effective speech. It is a paradox; what reads well on paper, is often ephemeral when spoken.  The secret lies in bringing in the finer nuances of language in a manner that is both eloquent and emphatic. The difference between a mediocre and iconic speech is often due to the language used.   

Here is an overview of a few elements of language that can aid in writing compelling and indelible speeches.

  1.  Denotative and Connotative meaning

It is vital to know the context in which a word is being used as words have a denotative (literal) and connotative (implied) meaning. How a word is perceived by the audience or reader is the connotation of a word.  It is the feeling or reaction that a word evokes and hence word choice is extremely crucial. Random replacement of a word with its synonym does not work. Describing a person as frugal may be more acceptable than calling them stingy.   Frugal implies a person who makes wise decisions when buying things while stingy implies one who is reluctant to part with his money.  Hence it is crucial to ensure that the right synonym is used to effectively communicate the intended meaning.

  • Le mot juste (The Right Word)

19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert coined the French term “Le mot juste” or “the right word”.  He said, “It’s precision that gives writing power.” The right word choice impacts the reaction of the audience.  Saying, “She stormed into the mansion” instead of “She walked angrily inside the big house” is more effective and precise. Instead of using generic words such as choosy, terms like fastidious and meticulous give a more precise meaning.  A cardinal rule to be adhered to while looking for “le Mot juste” is to keep it in context.  Most people use complex words to impress, without really ensuring that it is being used in the right manner. While embellishing our speech with finer words it is essential to ensure that it does not confound the audience.

  • Rhetorical devices

Words have the incredible power to stimulate our senses, they can conjure graphic visuals, evoke a sense of nostalgia, rouse up a veritable storm or douse raging tempers. Vivid imagery can be created with the use of figurative language tools such as metaphors, similes, and personifications.  “Her touch was as light as a feather,” is a simile that instantly conveys the delicate touch of the character.  “Life is a rollercoaster ride,” is an oft-used metaphor that conveys the ups and downs of life befittingly.  Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is replete with metaphors such as “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” This instantly conveys the urgency and need to avoid falling deeper into the traps of racism. 

  • Rhythm or cadence

The rhythm or cadence of a speech refers to the pattern of sound generated by the elements of a speech. Just as in music the beat of a song keeps the listener hooked, literary devices like alliterations, triads, and repetitions grab the attention of the audience.  For example, using an alliteration like ‘She stood by the side fearful, forlorn and fatigued,’ leaves a stronger impression. The power of repetition is best exemplified in Martin Luther King’s speech, where  ‘I have a dream” is repeated 9 times. This kind of repetition not only brings on a poetic rhythm to the speech but is also very persuasive.

Language has various components to elevate a speech. One can use them judiciously by applying the ABC rule.  

Appropriate for the speaker and audience – Use language that you as a speaker are comfortable with and that which is understood by the audience and is appropriate for them.

Brevity – Do not go overboard with flowery language and too many rhetorical devices. Avoid complex sentences, brevity in both content and format is key to gaining a rapt audience.

Clarity and Conciseness– Ensure that your ideas and thoughts are conveyed lucidly. Most writers are reluctant to let go of some words as they form an attachment to them.  Going over the written matter with a fine-tooth comb is essential to keep the matter clear and concise.

Language with its varied nuances is a magical palette of paints.  It is up to you to pick the varied hues and create an artistic masterpiece in the form of your speech. Wield this power effectively and create enthralling and engaging speeches.

For more information visit Toastmasters

Vijaya Sukumaran, DTM

An adrenaline junkie who loves zip-lining and a logophile who loves playing word games, TM Vijaya is a true Libran often caught in the balancing act. She savours the bliss of nothingness, but the mystique of the unexplored goads her into treading new paths. From being a finance professional, she meandered into freelance writing, making several contributions to local publications. Currently, she enjoys conducting “Spoken English Classes” for adults.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *