As a trainer I pride myself on being able to answer the many questions my trainees ask. But here’s one that got me stumped on a writing workshop the other day: how many words are there in the English language? My initial response was to say “a lot” which, at the very least, has the virtue of being correct but in every other respect isn’t terribly helpful. So here is my slightly more considered response…
It depends who you ask and how you count.
Ask an organisation called Global Monitor who profess to keep tabs on such things and they’ll tell you 1,019,729.6 (yes, you read that right – point six)! They base this questionable figure on a trawl of English words on the web. Do the trawl manually through all 20 volumes of the Second Edition of the Oxford English Diction and you’ll arrive at the much lower (but still impressive) 171,476. They base their figure on words in current use and count the same word each time it has a distinct and different meaning. For example, the word dog appears at least three times in the OED list – once as a noun (as in the dog barked); once as a verb with a traditional meaning (as in to follow persistently); and once again as a verb with a more modern meaning (as in…well, you know what I mean and if you don’t use your imagination)!
Whoever’s figures you choose there’s no arguing it’s a lot. So why so many? Another good question and an easier one to answer…
It’s Harold’s fault!
Before Harold Godwinson was beaten in the Battle of Hastings the English language had a largely Germanic root thanks to the Angles and the Saxons who populated our island from the east. Post 1066 William the Conqueror’s Norman buddies brought with them a whole new vocabulary rooted in French (itself rooted in Latin) and rather than supplanting the Anglo Saxon lexicon the two grew up alongside one another. And since then we’ve since added many other words borrowed from the various languages of our once huge Empire (from India bungalow, pajamas and jodhpurs to list but a few).
This presents writers with a huge challenge: which word do we choose?
To fight or to battle that is the question
In his “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech Winston Churchill is said to have chosen the old word “fight” instead of the equally valid but newer word “battle” because he felt it would stir the British bulldog spirit more effectively. And you can’t argue with Churchill. So when you’re pondering which word to use, choose the one which conveys your meaning most precisely and which moves your reader most effectively. You don’t need to be spoiled for choice providing you choose well/select properly (delete/cross out as applicable).
Love him or hate him, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s keynote speech to his party’s conference in Manchester this week is an interesting, instructive and, it has to be said, fairly lengthy watch for students of public speaking and presentational skills. If you’ve got one hour, four minutes and 48 seconds to spare you can watch his address here and make up your own mind. But if you haven’t (or as a true blue Tory voter the very thought of spending that long with him makes your skin creep) then read my conference speech guide – not to the politics of it but the mechanics.
I’ve divided his address into the five components that make up any speech from the grandest to the most modest :
1 the speaker
2 the spoken (words)
3 the spoken to (audience)
4 the unspoken (body language)
5 the place spoken (venue)
In this post I’m going to explore the first component – the speaker. Future posts will cover the other four.
As a speaker the key to a successful presentation is knowing from the outset exactly what you want that presentation to achieve and never losing sight of your objectives through the planning and delivery phases. As a trainer I recommend speakers distil their purpose into a just few lines as the very first step. Watching Ed Miliband I’d stake my house on his early notes reading something like this: “show the audience I’m an ordinary kind of guy, share with them my vision for Britain and tell them how together we can make that happen.” As a politician he almost certainly couldn’t resist also scribbling “and rubbish the Coalition, especially the Conservative half or it.”
Know thyself Know thine audience is the phrase most often associated with public speaking. But there should be a second mantra – know thyself. Self knowledge as a speaker is vital. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Where the comfort zone ends and the discomfort zone begins. How nervousness manifests itself (and all presenters get nervous however relaxed they may appear). Like top athletes the very best speakers frequently push themselves beyond their normal limits. It’s how they improve. By speaking entirely without notes Miliband was pushing himself to the limits of his endurance. Doing the oratorial equivalent of a Mo Farah (whose name, incidentally, he mentioned in an effort to associate himself with the winning Olympic team). In delivering his address without even the safety net of an auto-cue he was again serving his purpose. He wanted us to think “hey a guy who can do that can run the country.”
As a speaker it’s also vital to know your relationship with the audience. Is your stock, so to speak, high or low? Do they like you or hate you? You’re selling them something – in Miliband’s case a promise to make Britain great again in return for our votes – so you better know how hard a sell you’ve got on your hands. The Labour leader clearly understood his stock was on the low side, not at the conference itself so much as among the wider public audience. Confronted with this tension between themselves and their audience speakers have two options: ignore it and hope it’ll go away; or concede there’s tension and do something to reduce it. Sensibly Miliband chose the second. “I understand why you voted for Cameron,” he declared before moving on to why we should no longer trust the Prime Minister but trust him instead.
You’re havin’ a laugh
Humour is an important part of any speech. Important but not essential. Not essential because some people are uncomfortable with humour – speakers and audiences alike. And some subjects are simply no laughing matter. Done right, however, humour can lift a speech. Give both the audience and the speaker a moment to relax. Act as a delicate counterpoint to a more profound moment. Provide punctuation. Give people a chance to shift buttocks or open a Murray mint without drawing attention to themselves. Done wrong humour can kill a speech stone dead. Alienate an audience. Overdone and it can tend to trivialise a speech and overshadow the content.
By making himself the butt of his jokes Miliband avoided giving offence. And mostly the laughs he got appeared genuine (but then in a hall full of acolytes I’d be surprised if they didn’t) although occasionally there was a momentary disconnect between punch line and laugh which made the smile on the Labour leader’s face a tad strained. My advice is to move on swiftly if the anticipated response isn’t forthcoming.
More importantly his self deprecating humour helped serve his purpose: it was designed to show the audience (especially the overwhelming majority of us beyond the conference walls) that he was our kind of guy. Odd looking perhaps. A bit like the bloke off Wallace and Gromit maybe. But warm and friendly nonetheless. The friendly bit is crucial to politicians. They know we don’t trust them. And because we don’t trust them they know we don’t like them. But they also know that human nature dictates this behavioural formula works the other way round and if we like them we’ll trust them. So politicians work hard to make themselves likeable. Hence the humour and the frequent references to family history in the Miliband speech.
Richard Uridge coaches public speakers and runs presentational skills workshops. He hasn’t trained Ed Miliband. And even if he had he’d be contractually obliged to say he hadn’t (but he really hasn’t)! He’s not a bad speaker himself. Not the best. But then Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t the best footballer. If you’d like him (Richie that is not Fergie) to train you or your colleagues or give a speech then you can get in touch by sending him an email email@example.com
So much writing (and speech for that matter) is lazy. People peck at their keyboards or open their mouths and let whatever comes to mind spill out. Which very often is cliché-laden, jargon-strewn nonsense. Take a look at “50 Office-Speak Phrases You Love to Hate” and you’ll see what I mean.
No excuses. Think before you write. Take Samuel Johnson’s advice. The 18th Century English writer of dictionary fame said: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” Or Ernest Hemmingway’s. “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Avoid clichés like the plague. Don’t make your readers as sick as proverbial parrots. Please them with your well-crafted words. Let me show you how with one of my writing workshops.
Noam Chomsky may well be an expert linguist. But his suggestion in a recent Daily Telegraph article that oratory is unnecessary is ludicrous. ‘I am no Barack Obama,’ he told the interviewer, Nigel Farndale. ‘I don’t have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don’t like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don’t think it is the way to reach people. If you are giving a graduate course you don’t try to impress the students with oratory, you try to challenge them, get them to question you.’
Well Noam I beg to differ. Hearing you drone on would bore me, however interesting the content. I’m glad I’m not one of your students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d be the bloke at the back dozing off.
Great communicators combine content with style. Okay so no amount of style can make up for a total lack of content. But great content can be spoiled by poor delivery. Try reading any of Churchill’s famous wartime addresses to the nation in a boring voice. Or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech for that matter.
Classical music provides an appropriate metaphor. Imagine Beethoven’s 5th played on just one instrument. And, what’s more, imagine that the instrument played just one note. Wouldn’t be much of a symphony. Blah, blah, blah…You wouldn’t want to listen beyond a few blahs – oops I mean bars – now would you?
When public speaking your voice is an instrument. So use it as such. Unless, of course, you’re in possession of one of the world’s greatest intellects. And are arrogant enough to believe that alone will compel people to listen to you.
Words matter. Well chosen they have the ability to move us to tears. Of sadness. Of joy. They can pluck our emotions as assuredly as a classical musician plucks the strings of a harp. Or, if you prefer, play our soul like Noel Gallagher tweaking his Telecaster. Written for the eye or spoken for the ear, words can transport us through time and space. Badly chosen words can move us too. Spark moral outrage and indignation. Provoke anger and frustration. Or, more likely, send us to sleep through a fog of I-really-can’t-be-arsed-to-read-this indifference.
Most of the time we choose the words we speak or write instinctively. We don’t, consciously at least, consider whether they’re the right words. And, as a consequence, sometimes they’re the wrong words. Which may not matter a whole lot if we’re talking to friends or writing to family. But which may matter heaps if we’re comunicating with a wider, possibly less tolerant, more critical audience.
Take the word communicating in the last sentence. It’s missing an m. And while that may not bother you there’ll be some readers fulminating at such a basic mistake. It would undermine my credibility as a communications coach and make selling my services to the angry reader an unlikely prospect. Yet every single day I receive letters and emails exhorting me to buy something that are littered with literals, or are simply (and often complicatedly) inelegant, ineffective, inept, inane. And occasionally insane.
Consider for a moment the poor soul at the NHS who wrote the letter sent to 8.5 million patients advising us that our healthcare records were about to be put onto the computerised Summary Care Record system and that we could opt out of the move if we wished. According to the Telegraph (June 17th 2010), just 15% of the letters were read which means 7.2 million letters were not. A remarkable reflection on our indifference or a sure sign that the letter was poorly written? If you’ve received such a letter let me know your view by posting a comment. Oh and if you’d like to learn how to write professionally and creatively (yes the two can go hand in hand) sign up for my creative and professional writing skills workshop.