Public Speakers: Don’t Be A "Verbal Backspacer"
I recently worked with a client who had an interesting public speaking challenge.
The client is precise in his language and values using the exact right word in every sentence when speaking to audiences. That’s not surprising, since the man is immersed in policy work, for which carefully calibrated language is an asset.
The man had a recurring habit of beginning a sentence and getting halfway into it before realizing that he didn’t like a certain word choice. So he would stop and start the sentence over again, this time using the better replacement word.
But his constant stops and starts didn’t help. They undercut his credibility, making him appear nervous and tentative.
When he stopped his practice speech, I told him that he was engaging in the verbal equivalent of hitting the “backspace” key on his computer’s keyboard. But whereas hitting backspace is appropriate when writing a document or complicated policy brief, it’s not appropriate when standing in front of a live audience.
To help redirect his focus, I asked him this question: “Which is the bigger priority for you in this presentation: finding the exact right word in every sentence, or making a genuine connection with members of the audience?” He told me it was the latter, which led him to a bit of an “aha!” moment.
Focusing on the audience should be the priority for most speakers. An imperfect word that’s “close enough” usually is, well, close enough. It’s normal to struggle to find the right word once in a while, so don’t worry if it happens occasionally. But if you’re aiming for linguistic perfection while speaking in front of audiences, you’re probably doing it to the detriment of more important things – like inspiring, motivating, or connecting with the people seated before you.
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The classic comedic example of verbal backspacing is the Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition, which even has its own Wikipedia page:
You can watch it here on Youtube: