Using Language to Unlock Your Audience

One of my daughters is a senior in high school. Recently she made a poor decision that wasn’t a huge deal in the scheme of things. But it was something that needed to be addressed. So I told her I would be thinking about what her consequence would be. About an hour later, I got a text from her explaining that she had been “processing” her mistake and could see why I would be frustrated and disappointed. She acknowledged that she understood my viewpoint and would accept her punishment, whatever I decided.

At first I congratulated myself for raising such an incredible and mature human being. But then, it hit me. She was doing what I teach my communication students (and apparently my own children) about all the time. My daughter was using language to unlock me. She had crafted the perfect message, using words that resonate with me, to try to help protect her or, at the very least, to soften me. I couldn’t decide whether to be upset or proud.

You see, language has incredible potential. On my desk, sits a framed quote that pretty much sums up my whole life’s work. It’s a quote by Tom Stoppard that says, “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” I believe that to be true. It’s true for teenagers trying to lessen their punishments. And for employees trying to get a promotion. For salesmen and women trying to make a sale. And for presenters trying to move an audience. Words are where it’s at.

So today, I’ll be sharing a few tips for how you can use language to unlock your audience.

Know what moves them.

All of us have particular terms that seem to resonate more strongly with us. Just like we have favorite colors and favorite restaurants, we also have favorite words. Usually, it’s because those words are tied to people or memories that mean a lot to us. You see, language is part of our personal histories. We learn it from the people who raise us (hence the term “mother tongue”), and we pick up on their linguistic patterns. You can probably identify some of your friends’ and family members’ frequently used terms. When you are communicating with someone, it helps if you use the words that mean the most to them. You might have heard of “mirroring.” It’s when you match your body language with the person you are speaking with in order to build a connection. You can do the same thing with language when you mirror their words.

Now granted, you can’t possibly know the favorite words of your audience members when you give a presentation. But you can take time to research who will be there and what is important to them. This might mean that you take time to peruse their websites or marketing materials to see what words come up frequently. Or you could use Monkey Learn or one of these other free Word Cloud generators to analyze social media platforms for the things they talk about most.

Of course, when conducting online research, it’s important to respect privacy rules and to keep your audience’s best interests in mind. Researching to move and influence is different from blatant manipulation. We have to always combine the power of language with ethics. As Cicero says in On the Orator, writing about the ability to persuade through speech, “and the stronger this faculty is, the more necessary it is for it to be combined with integrity and supreme wisdom, and if we bestow fluency of speech on persons devoid of those virtues, we shall not have made orators of them but shall have put weapons into the hands of madmen.”

Know what doesn’t move them.

Often becoming a great speaker is as much about the language you don’t use as it is about the language you do use. When your language isn’t remarkable, your presentation isn’t either. In order to cut through the incredible amounts of communication we receive each day, you have to be someone who weeds out unnecessary details and clichés from your language.

I used to have a coworker who was known for his inability to edit himself. Not that he said inappropriate things, it was just that whenever he spoke up, he seemed to go on and on and on. You could almost feel a tangible shift in the meeting room when he offered his two cents. Everyone else might give a 1–2-minute response. But this guy would talk for 10-15 minutes with no concept of how long he had been talking. So for starters, know that unedited, lengthy comments will bore your audience. They will obscure any of the nuggets of gold that might be hidden in the muck. Check out these tricks for reducing wordiness from the College of Charleston.

Next, work to remove clichés from your language. Here’s why. Some of you may be old enough to remember the contagious beanie babies trend of the 1990s. Everyone was so sure those little stuffed animals would be worth a fortune someday, so we collected them like crazy. The only problem was, when everyone ends up having them, they end up not being worth much at all. Words work the same way.

When someone uses a clever turn of phrase the first couple of times, it is worth a lot. Its novelty strikes us as clever. It captures our attention because our brain literally creates new pathways to process the new information. Research has even proven that novelty increases our learning. However, once everyone picks up on the trend and starts using the phrase, it eventually loses it worth. Our brains have not only created new pathways, they have traveled them time and time again. And an old familiar rut just doesn’t have the same ability to hold our attention or move us like a new turn of phrase does.

In fact, Kirk Hazen, Professor of Linguistics at West Virgina University has a great way of distinguishing when a common phrase turns into a cliché. He says when the overused phrase starts to bother people, “when it reaches the point of aggravation,” that’s when it is cliché.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Language

We can’t underestimate the power of language. In her article “Language and the Brain” in Science magazine, Lera Boroditsky says, “Languages—exquisitely structured, complex, and diverse—are a distinctively human gift, at the very heart of what it means to be human . . . Language plays a central role in the human brain, from how we process color to how we make moral judgments. It directs how we allocate visual attention, construe and remember events, categorize objects, encode smells and musical tones, stay oriented, reason about time, perform mental mathematics, make financial decisions, experience and express emotions, and on and on.” In other words, language isn’t just how we process our lives, it is our lives.

When we know what does and doesn’t move our audiences, we can structure our messages with language that has incredible potential. Again, this doesn’t mean that you should abandon ethics or compromise your character. But it does mean that you can unlock your audience. You can “nudge the world a little” if you use the right words in the right order.

Ready to learn more about how you can develop engaging narratives and compelling visuals to unlock the power of your presentations? Get in touch with one of our experts now.

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