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Beware the Ponderous Trap

Modifiers may weaken language to the point of forgettable speech, but equally bad is the style of speech politicians and social scientists adopt when they're cornered or simply trying to impress. I call it babblespeak. The essence of this style is using a lot of words that say as little as possible. Unfortunately, this tendency isn't limited to specialists; many people feel they must use big words to make an impression, when, in reality, vivid language is simple and direct.

The good platform speaker avoids this babbling style as if it were poison. To avoid becoming a babbler:

  • Use single syllable words, which are often more powerful than words with three or more syllables.

  • Make your point in the fewest words.

  • Use common words instead of stilted words and jargon.

  • Avoid the passive voice: Use lots of active verbs.

  • Don't beat around the bush; be direct.

Much of this cloudy language has bureaucratic sources. A plumber in New York wrote to the Bureau of Standards in Washington. He said that he found hydrochloric acid was great for cleaning drains, but was it safe? A bureaucrat answered: "The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but the chlorine residue is incompatible with metallic permanence."

The plumber replied he was glad that Washington thought he was right. He got another reply: "We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residues with hydrochloric acid." Right, the plumber answered, it's good stuff.

Finally, the Bureau sent the plumber a note saying what it had meant all along: "Don't use hydrochloric acid; it eats the hell out of the pipes!"

The worst thing about this sort of babble is that once you start, it's very easy to fall into its trap. One complicated sentence leads to another and before long, you have a whole speech—but it will be one that audiences will have a tough time listening to.


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