Some people talk too soon, some too late, some too much, and some too little. Others pile up the sentences so fast you’d think they have to catch a train. Some talk too loud, soft, or close (in your face).
One of the most common regrets I heard in my clinical practice was from patients who believed they lacked the right word at the right time. Something had happened. Perhaps an offensive comment had been made, and they didn’t know how to respond.
The right words arrived by United Parcel Service (UPS) about three hours later. Others couldn’t imagine a good repost even after three weeks.
There are too many ways to go wrong in everyday conversation and even more in a public presentation if you don’t have much to contribute. Adlai Stevenson II told the following story.
It seems that a young and none-too-impressive new member of the British House of Commons approached his party leader and Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli:
“Now, Mr. Prime Minister, I’ve just come to the House; do you think it would be well if I participated in debate?” And the Prime Minister looked at him appraisingly for a moment and said, “No, I think it would be better if you did not. I think it would be better if the House wondered why you didn’t speak rather than why you did!”
Even though we don’t have the benefit of Disraeli’s advice, many of us have thought of ourselves as Disraeli did of the young member of Parliament: that we’d cause embarrassment by opening our mouths.
Well, sometimes we will, and indeed, all of us have done it before. Few will remember our blunders, however, and there is no chance of making an impression that is clever, thoughtful, kind, or enlightened without moving our lips.
No amount of potential eloquence does us any good if we forever have the mute button on.
I’ve made some unfortunate comments myself.
In my teens, I visited a cousin whose mother had died after a long and grueling struggle with cancer. I extended my condolences, and, as often happens during such visits, we discussed other things.
Indeed, I forgot the sad occasion for a moment and mentioned a recent minor mishap, characterizing it as a “fate worse than death.”
Too late to suck it back in. No way to un-ring the bell.
I apologized, of course, and my kind relative forgave my mistake. She was dealing with the real thing, death itself, not something trivial and stupid such as my comment. Years later, she couldn’t recall it.
Tactless remarks arise, as uncomfortable as they are. As I said earlier, we often wonder why we didn’t know what to say.
For a lucky few, their command of language comes as a genetic gift. They also have the confidence to deliver a line that others might keep to themselves.
While I can’t give you natural eloquence, I have a few suggestions to increase the possibility of saying the right thing and avoiding the wrong one:
- Make a recording of yourself as if you were chatting. There is nothing like hearing how you sound to discover what might be imperfect about how you converse. Yes, it could fuel your self-consciousness temporarily. But the project of self-improvement rarely comes without courage and pain.
- Have at l least one joke in hand that isn’t dirty or politically incorrect.
- Cut out “stance adverbs” and participles when beginning to talk or as interjections. I’m speaking of “uh,” “um,” “like,” “so,” and “you know.” Limit how often you say “awesome.” And never put these words altogether: “So, uh, you know, like, um, it was awesome!” Don’t say “fail” when you mean “failure” and “reveal” when you should use “revelation.” You will sound 20% more intelligent once all this is accomplished.
- Wait a bit before answering, at least sometimes, to create the opportunity to formulate what you have to say. The conversation isn’t a race to hit the buzzer on a TV game show.
- Part of the reason for waiting is to grasp what your partner means, display respect, and understand his point of view. Repeating what has been said to you can be helpful. Identifying and acknowledging his ideas is essential if you wish to have friends and loving companions. Fewer disagreements will be one of the benefits.
- If you expect a wise guy to put you down (because of your history or his), prepare some comebacks in advance. There are books on this sort of thing, so you don’t have to be original. Don’t forget, however, that sometimes the best put down is to ignore the barb, and ending the relationship occasionally is necessary.
- Try to sound au courant (a French expression meaning “up to date” or “fully informed”). A good start would be to read something other than an internet story on the life of the Kardashians.
- Discover some new words. Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary has been around since 1942 and is a worthy place to begin.
- Don’t circumambulate (circle the idea you are trying to express). Get to the point so as not to lose your listeners.
- If you are in the habit of employing lots of pronouns, be sure the pronoun comes right after the formal name of whoever the “he” or “she” you are referring to is. If you don’t, the listener might think you are talking about someone else.
- In general, especially in public utterances, wait until you have the attention of others. Trying to talk over people is frustrating, and those who specialize in preventing you from completing your thought are rude.
- Asking dinner partners to stop texting should happen much more often than it does. It is not impolite to tell them you will wait until they are finished.
- Most people who are nervous tend to rush what they have to say. Instead, think of your oral communication as a landscape painting, where the words become the foreground, and the silence becomes the background. It will help if you allow seconds of quiet to put your words into relief.
- Consider going to Toastmasters. It is an organization whose meetings (also online) are “learn-by-doing” workshops “in which participants hone their speaking and leadership skills in a no-pressure atmosphere.” And they’ve been doing it since 1924.
- Unless you are gifted in delivering an unrehearsed speech in front of an audience, try to memorize your address or at least bring an outline.
- One last piece of advice comes from an anonymous author:
Be careful of the words you say,
Keep them short and sweet.
You never know, from day to day,
Which ones you’ll have to eat.
The revised edition of Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary was published in 2022.
The second image is a 1630 self-portrait of Rembrandt, sourced from the National Gallery of Art. The cartoon is called Conversation by Richard Melo da Silva, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.