Vocabulary is one of those things that we don’t think much about. We don’t really consider why we use the words we do– which doesn’t necessarily imply that we don’t care– only that the words we do use are so natural to us that it doesn’t cross our minds to consider why we use them. Despite our nonchalance, the vocabulary people use reveals a lot about themselves, whether that be where we’re from, how much education we’ve received or what industry we work in. Choosing appropriate vocab will strengthen and differentiate a presentation. 

Firstly, be sure to avoid dinosaur words, as our founder and CEO Scott Schwertly likes to call them. Dinosaur words are those words you would normally never use in everyday speech, like notwithstanding, hence and therefore. If you wouldn’t use them in regular conversation, they don’t belong in your presentation. The same goes for using huge SAT words; don’t do it. The chance is pretty high that some people in the audience won’t know what that word means. As a result, you risk sounding pretentious and elitist and losing your audience. Keep your vocabulary simple.

Steve Jobs was renowned for his excellent public speaking skills, and lauded for his focus on visual heavy slides with little text. His Apple Keynote speeches were immensely popular, because unlike his competitors Bill Gates and Michael Dell, he kept his presentations very simple. Jobs’ average number of words per sentence was 10.5, 2.9% of which were difficult words, and the grade level he spoke at was 5.5. Conversely, Bill Gates spoke at a 10.7 grade level, using an average of 21.6 words per sentence where 5.11% of those were difficult words. Note the stark difference between the two. Audiences received Jobs’ presentations with more enthusiasm and excitement because he spoke simply and clearly.

Another pitfall to avoid when choosing vocab is the tendency to use a significant amount of business jargon. Avoid using jargon at all, if possible, because it’s dense and inclusive. At best, it’s difficult to understand and at worst, it’s incomprehensible. Remember the presentation rule of thumb: keep it simple. Speak succinctly and clearly. The audience will tune out if too many difficult, dubious words bog them down.

Stephen King mused in On Writing, “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.

The same goes for presentations. Don’t dress up your vocabulary. If you are continually replacing average words with huge, academic words, it’s obvious and reeks of pretense to a certain extent. As a presenter, it’s imperative to connect to the audience, to gain and keep their trust. If you use obscure vocab in an attempt to impress them, it will most likely result in an air of falsity. Be real. Be down to earth.

Another important thing to consider when choosing appropriate vocabulary is whether you are speaking to an audience of non-native English speakers. While this might be a rare occurrence, it’s more and more likely in today’s world flattened by globalization. If you do find yourself giving a presentation to non-native speakers, as a rule use simple vocabulary, but if you’re talking to someone who speaks a romance language, using complex words can be easier for them to understand because they are rooted in Latin. For example, it is easier for a Spanish speaker to understand the word ‘difficult’ rather than ‘hard’ because the Spanish word ‘difícil’ sounds closer to difficult. Also when speaking to non-native speakers, avoid colloquialisms (y’all, like) and phrasal verbs (make it, break up, come across, etc.).

Choosing appropriate vocabulary is an important aspect of any presentation. Don’t try to impress your audience with convoluted, dense words. More likely than not, that will simply turn them off. Just be yourself. 

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