Choose your language wisely when presenting (very wisely)

language_in_presentations

My grandmother has a set number of stories that cycle ‘round like the seasons; lots of grandmothers do it, and I’m glad that, at 92, she’s as prolific as ever.

One of the stories involves a version of “The House That Jack Built” but recited as formally as possible. She’s always said that her father used to recite it to her. It’s called “The Domiciliary Abode Constructed By John,” and it goes something like this…

“This is the domiciliary abode constructed by John
This is the curdled milk product that lay in the domiciliary abode constructed by John
This is the Ratus norvegicus specimen that consumed the curdled milk product
That lay in the domiciliary abode constructed by John”

And so it goes on.

As a child it delighted me. Like the classic “I chased a bug around a tree…” repeated very quickly, it played with language and expectation and I think this is when I started getting interested in forms of communication. The way one form of language is used in a formal setting and another is used in an informal setting fascinated me. I used to get told off for using the dialect “Ay-Up” as a greeting when meeting friends of my parents; I knew I should have been more formal, but didn’t understand why.

Language choice matters, it shows our socio-economic grouping, our cultural background and how we view ourselves. I’ve put together five guidelines on finding the right language for your presentation.

1) Be authentic.
Most of us have had the painful experience of an authority figure coming into our school and trying to talk like us. Don’t be that person — if you’re not comfortable adopting an audience’s voice, then don’t. I remember seeing the late Labour Party Leader John Smith being interviewed by a group of children asking him about popular cultural figures, bands and the like. “I’m a politician, I don’t know who these people are, and that’s a good thing’ was the tone of his response. Why should he? He didn’t fake it, or get a spin doctor involved; he was authentic in his response.

2) Avoid journalese.
Because we’re consumers of mass journalism, we pick up the language, and it seems acceptable. It isn’t, even for journalists. No one is a “budding” anything, costs don’t “skyrocket” no one is an “innocent bystander” and there has never been an “eleventh hour” “mercy dash” by “hero” firemen to “tackle a blaze.” It shows a lack of imagination and a penchant for the over dramatic.

3) Be mindful.
I’m unfashionable enough to think that political correctness is a good thing. It shows that you’re respectful, and when you’re presenting to a mass of unseen contacts over the web, you need to make sure your language reflects that. However, check your language first, Google it, ask a colleague if you’re not sure. For example, “wheelchair user” good, “wheelchair bound” bad. “Black” fine “BAME communities” better.

4) Say what you mean.
You should never assume that if you’re presenting in a shared language, you have shared idioms. If I said that my colleagues were “mardy because it was black over Bill’s mothers.” Would you understand that they were grumpy due to black clouds in the distance? Possibly not — it’s best to just say it.

5) Anything from this list:
Going forward, at the end of the day, at this moment in time, passion (how I hate passion), blue-sky thinking, out of the box, thought shower, touch base, put a pin in it, challenging, 360-degree anything, paradigm shift, run it up the flagpole, cascading, communications stream, inform and incentivise. Stop it, just stop it now.

Language in presentations needs to be clear, concise and mindful.
Maybe I should have started with that.

 

Do's and Don'ts of giving a killer presentation

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About the author

John Rockley is Media and Presentation Trainer and Consultant at jdoubler. He spent 16 years with the BBC where he became a Senior Broadcast Journalist. Since starting jdoubler he’s trained senior teams across the UK & Europe in Media Engagement, Presentation Skills and Crisis Media planning. In his spare time he helps raise his 2 children, gets cross about the news, and does needle work. For more information go to jdoubler.co.uk or connect via LinkedIn, Twitter or YouTube More blog posts by John Rockley ››
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  • Chris

    “Maybe I should have started with that”…. If you had, I would not have read the rest of it and there in lies the conundrum… how to be engaging without losing the message… how to be concise without being too clinical… how to be the grandmother, the politician and the child all at the same time. Communicaton should be easy… but it is not… perhaps I need to think outside the box (oh the irony of it all!)

    • I agree that’s the conundrum Chris, without the context and the ‘why’ you can’t deal with the actions and the ‘what’; It’s a fine balance between striping out the unnecessary and stripping out the meaning. Communication is easy but that doesn’t mean it’s innate. It’s like every skill, it needs practice… oh, and put the box down and move away slowly…

  • Claire Allen

    I literally laughed out loud at this. Great post John, thank you for sharing. I think being authentic, honest, truthful whatever you want to call it is incredibly important. I recently started a small business and I quickly realised that in sharing my ‘why’ with people I had to be completely honest with my reasons, which meant they were quite personal! However this has benefited me as people believe me, which in turn builds trust and they buy in to the product, which I guess is effectively me before anything else. It just shows that how and what you communicate hugely affects your audience belief in you… Oh I could talk about this topic all day!

    • Really glad you enjoyed it Claire, and your experience shows what authenticity can bring to your business. It also highlights the difference between ‘corporate speak’ and talking… you know, just talking, like a normal person.

  • NELLY D

    “Language in presentations needs to be clear, concise and mindful” Good
    you ended with that. I will not forget it any time soon. Very
    instructive piece. Thank you John Rockley.

    • I’m really pleased that you found the blog useful Nelly!

  • Eric R

    ‘Language in presentations needs to be clear, concise and mindful. “Black” fine “BAME communities” better.’

    In ‘ye ole days’ we would say as we saw it expressing individual’s personality. Society became more advanced and morphed into super sensitive beings….Can’t say this, better to say that,….no wonder we are confused and have problems communicating.
    Language needs to be understood, honest and concise.

    • I understand your concern Eric, but I don’t think that it’s a case of super sensitivity. The goal is showing your appreciation of a communities sensitivities. As I said, Black is fine but BAME communities shows a wider awareness of a wider community that goes beyond those who identify themselves as black. Language that casually reinforces attitudes that have shifted needs to be addressed, like in the case of wheelchair bound becoming wheelchair user… a user is someone who is active in their life and is using a tool, someone who is bound is tied to an object and has no choice.

      Ultimately you can say what you want, but by choosing your language with care you’re able to communicate with as many possible customers as you can… it’s economic sense.

    • Fran

      I actually hate the “communities” bit, which implies that BEME are separate, what is wrong with “people”

      • I agree to some extent Fran; people is always a better word to use. However, if you’re segmenting your audience into “communities” and you want to target the BAME Community then it’s better than getting into semantic loops finding phrases that respect each group that lies in or has an affinity to BAME.

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