Public Speaking: Precise Communication
The purpose of language is to communicate ideas to others. However, using language effectively requires flawless execution of four steps: (1) the speaker must translate his ideas into language, (2) he must pronounce those words, (3) the listener must recognize those words, and (4) the listener must convert the words back into the ideas that they represent. To say that two people speak the same language merely means that they are capable of the middle two steps: pronouncing and recognizing words. Unfortunately, communication often fails us at the first and last steps, when ideas are converted to and from words. Let's look more closely at those two steps.

The average person's English vocabulary consists of between forty and fifty thousand words; in addition, there are many tens of thousands more words available to us that are not frequently used. This variety enables us to express many different ideas through the use of a single word. However, there has to be an agreement between the speaker and the listener as to what idea is represented by each word (that is, the definition of each word). For example, if I told you I had a 'couple of ideas,' how many ideas do I have? Strictly speaking, a 'couple' means a 'pair.' However, over time we have muddled the meaning of 'couple' to the point that it has also come to mean a 'few.' Thus, if I want to express the idea of 'two,' I need to be aware that while 'couple' may mean 'two,' some people might think I meant the less precise 'few.' If 'two' is important to the idea I am expressing, I have to know to choose another word or risk that the listener will understand something different from what I am trying to say.

Since most words can only convey a simple idea , we usually have to string together words in the right sequence. Take for example the word 'blue.' Most everyone knows what color blue is -- no one thinks of red or yellow or green -- but when I say 'blue,' what shade of blue do I mean? Do I mean sea blue, sky blue, or royal blue? To get that precision, I usually have to add more words to my sentences, which increases the risk that they will be words the listener will not understand.

Furthermore, there are other cases where the context of the words are equally important in determining the meaning of a word. If I told you that my friend 'flew south to Miami,' you would assume that she took a plane. If I told you my friend is a bird that feeds everyday outside my window, then you might infer instead that she got to Miami by flapping her wings. And like context, there is also assumed knowledge and experience -- that is, those ideas and facts that the speaker assumes the listener knows as he decides what parts of the idea he must explain and what parts he can leave out. In fact, almost always, the speaker skips over important facts that would help the listener 'see from the speakers perspective,' and so the listener can be confused as to what the speaker is talking about.

The combination of using the right words, stringing the words together in the right order, and supplying the listener with sufficient knowledge to be able to interpret what we say from our perspective are often more of a challenge than most people in daily conversation can or care to attempt to handle. Unable to express our exact idea, we frequently rely on other techniques such as questioning the listeners for understanding and watching for the expected visible reactions. Still, we often end up asking our listeners, to paraphrase the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court during last fall's presidential election folly, that less than educated question,"Do you get my drift?"

How do good orators overcome these obstacles to effective communication? They pay attention to these issues when they are putting their ideas into words because they don't have the option of interacting with their audiences. You can see an example of good oratory in President Bush's address to the nation last week when he said, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." He employes in that sentence the various meanings of the word 'justice' to make his point. In the first usage of justice, "bring our enemies to justice," the phrase 'to justice' signals that he means 'to apprehend and try before a court' the wrongdoers. The second use, "bring justice to our enemies," is a more ominous threat; his use of "bring justice" suggests a 'righteous vengeance.' The third usage, "justice will be done," implies the abstract connotation of "the right thing." In this way, President Bush conveys the message that either approach -- by trial or conflict -- is a 'just' one. Furthermore, since these are common usages of 'justice,' he can be confident that most English-speaking listeners understood his message.

Updated October 1, 2003 - go to our home or life advice page