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Speaking Smartly . . . Say What You Really Mean

If you ask Jesse Crisler what he remembers most from a recent morning news program, you may be surprised. It wasn’t the celebrity guests, popular host, or sports beat. What stands out in his mind is a question the host asked his guest. It went something like this: “In lieu of this situation, what would be your take on the issue?”

Does something about that sentence stand out to you? If not, look again. What the host meant to say was “in light of” not “in lieu of.” “‘In lieu of’ means ‘in place of,’” explains Crisler, a BYU English professor. “It probably didn’t matter, but it bothered me because he was a national commentator misusing a common expression. He lost credibility in my eyes.”

You might not realize it, but every day you judge people by their words. You may make a purchase because a salesperson was persuasive. You may extend a job offer to the candidate who best articulates her ambitions. You may better understand your child’s needs if he communicates clearly. Conversely, a salesperson can turn you off with one poorly chosen comment. An incoherent job interview can cost a qualified candidate the position. And, you may feel frustrated because you can’t understand what in the world your teenager is really saying.

Remember that while you’re subconsciously judging others by their words, they’re judging you. “Every time you impede comprehension or generate fogginess, you sabotage your reason for communicating,” says Jan Venolia, author of The Right Word. “Unclear communication can make you look sloppy or uneducated; it suggests that you have limitations elsewhere as well.” How you speak says a lot about who you are—your upbringing, education, interests, and personality.

Consider this true story of a straight-A, recent college graduate who is job hunting. He sends out several résumés a week, but when recruiters call his phone, they hear the following message: “Hi, you’ve reached Rick, um, you can leave a message but … uh … I probably won’t listen to it for a week or so, so don’t do that. Try to call me back later. Bye.” And Rick wonders why he’s still job searching.

What does your speech say about you? Are you saying what you really mean? Have you ever stopped mid-sentence, wondering if it’s lay or lie, less or fewer, further or farther, or bad or badly? According to Venolia, you may have a case of “wrong-worditis” if you’re saying windshield factor, carport tunnel syndrome, and notary republic. If you have symptoms indicating unhealthy verbal skills, don’t despair. The following remedies will help heal your harmful speaking habits and increase your verbal health so you can say what you really mean.


How often do you drive with no destination in mind? Probably not as often as you speak without a purpose. Language is a powerful vehicle. But before you hit full throttle, you ought to first consider where you’re headed. Try not to open your mouth without thinking about where you want your words to take you.

If you frequently remind yourself of your purpose for communicating, you’ll reduce tendencies for tangents, poor word choice, rambling, bragging, or forgetting your point.

Always ask yourself, “What am I really trying to say? What do I want as a result of this interaction?” Give forethought to phone conversations, interviews, reviews, negotiations, speeches, presentations, and everyday conversations. Organizational Consultant Dave Jennings says, “Winging it won’t get you strong results.” He continues, “If you go into a situation saying, ‘I really want to get X out of this, you’re more likely to get it,” explains Jennings, who is also a Marriott School associate professor of organizational leadership and strategy.

Recruiter Jason Gerster agrees. Gerster, who screens more than fifty candidates a week and interviews around ten to fifteen, says he can immediately tell which applicants know exactly what they want.

“I can tell when I’m talking to a polished candidate within the first two minutes,” explains Gerster, who works for SWCA Environmental Consultants. “They articulate their thoughts and are able to tell me exactly why they are applying for the position.” He points out the most impressive applicants have researched the company and can clearly answer questions. “The most unimpressive people are those who can’t even tell me why they want the job,” he adds.

To avoid being labeled “unimpressive,” be sure you have a “why” behind what you say. Don’t talk just for the sake of being heard. Instead, be the individual everyone listens to intently because your words are powered by meaning. If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.



What if you visited the doctor for strep throat and she said, “You know we probably ought to go ahead and remove your spleen.” We expect doctors to correctly diagnose and deliver the appropriate treatment. A misdiagnosis could be harmful or even fatal.

You may not be a doctor, but you still have diagnostic duties every time you speak. Whether it’s one or fifty people you’re speaking to, they have needs you should address. A good communicator is always assessing the audience connection and adjusting the message accordingly.

How do you know if you’re connecting with your listeners? When you’ve taken them on a journey from why to how, explains Nick Morgan, author of Working the Room: How to Move People to Action through Audience-Centered Speaking.“Audiences come in asking why am I here? Why is this important to me? They want to know this is going to be good for them in some way,” Morgan says. You’ll know if you’re succeeding if your listener is asking, “How do I do what you are talking about? How do I get to work on this?”

As founder of Public Words, a communications coaching company, Morgan has worked with leaders from around the world. He says the most common mistake people make is unloading too much information. The cure, he suggests, is simplifying the message. “Figure out what single message you want to get across to the audience, and eliminate everything that doesn’t reinforce it.” When tailoring your message, ask, “Who are they? What do they care about? What do they fear? What is going to move that audience?”

Sometimes it’s difficult to weed out your ideas, points, and stories because you’ve become attached to them, but if they don’t strengthen your purpose or connect with your audience, leave them out. Lisa Novotny, vice president of human resources at General Mills, says people should share key messages in concise, clear terms. “Brevity, thoughtfulness, openness to others’ points of view, and the ability to summarize a conversation, are key to connecting with listeners and clearly communicating,” she says.

Another key aspect of connecting with an audience is to speak in terms they understand. Much of our vocabulary consists of jargon words specific to our interests and profession. “Always be conscious of whom you’re around,” Crisler reminds. “You have to be constantly gauging what level of discourse is appropriate for your listener.”

Whether you’re at work, at home, or with friends, effective communication depends on an accurate diagnosis of your listener.


It’s the first thing a doctor does to ensure the best diagnosis and treatment—listen to the patient. Listening is crucial to productive communication. Part of being a good speaker is being a good listener, Jennings says. “I spend a significant amount of my time getting Fortune 500 leaders to listen more at work,” he explains. “Too often people are trying to get their idea out and miss out on the value of the other person.”

Jennings teaches his clients and students about the importance of being more spacious with other people’s language—giving them space to explain their full ideas. “Conversation is not just about your idea, it’s about two people coming together and bringing out more than one half.”

Recently, one of Jennings’ clients, an Intel manager, decided to try his newly learned listening skills at a business meeting. Instead of trying to convince, his usual approach, he focused on genuinely listening to the client’s concerns and needs. He asked questions to verify that he understood. Halfway through the meeting, his client said, “You know, I think you’re right and I’m wrong. Let’s do it your way.” Twenty minutes later, the manager signed a $12 million deal with this client. The manager reported, “If I would have pushed my normal way, I doubt I’d have sealed the deal.”

Dale Carnegie wrote, “Listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay anyone.” In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie also points out the simple truth that to be interesting, we must be interested. “Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.” When you do this, be genuine. Really listen and try to remember what other people are passionate about.

Your ability or inability to listen well is apparent in your speaking. Gerster says he interviews a lot of people who simply aren’t good listeners. “Many candidates will give answers that don’t even answer the question,” he explains. “That shows poor communication skills both in speaking and listening.”

Listen to questions. Listen to explanations. Listen to solutions. Listen to your supervisor, your employees, your assistant, your friends, your spouse, and your children. When you hear and understand them, you’ll know how to connect with them. The hearing ear is always found close to the speaking tongue; and no genius can long or often utter anything which is not invited and gladly entertained by men around him.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson


Now that you’ve thought about what you want to say, learned the needs of your listeners, and heard what they think, you’re ready to deliver the message. But like a doctor preparing for a procedure, you need the right tools—or in your case, words.

The English language is always evolving, but recent trends have some scholars worried about where we’re heading. In 1950, the average six- to fourteen-year-old American had a twenty-five thousand-word vocabulary. Fifty years later it shrunk to ten thousand words. Crisler explains the impact of words is diminishing because of the speed at which we communicate. Text messaging reduces the need to use big words. Email can lead to quick, sloppy, and incomplete messages. As a result, Crisler says we’re seeing a “dumbing down” of people’s ability to handle and use language and to be persuasive in discussion. He says there’s an increased tendency to lapse into jargon and pat expressions rather than searching for the precise and exact word. “English is a rich language,” Crisler adds. “We should take advantage of the many words that exist to convey what we want.”

According to Venolia, the average English-speaking adult has a vocabulary of thirty thousand to sixty thousand words. With so many known terms to choose from, why do we get tongue-tied so often? Linguists say it’s because we allow a few words to carry our verbal load. Venolia believes people’s ability to understand and use words correctly is plummeting—even among the college educated. She says, “It’s as if we’ve inherited sacks of gold but live as paupers.”

Like most people, you’re probably long overdue for a deposit to your word account. Crisler recommends several ways to learn correct usage and new terms. First of all, read more. As you read, keep a list of words you don’t know, look them up, and practice using them. Be more alert and ask questions. Use your dictionary and thesaurus often. Buy or download a word-a-day calendar. You can also make learning fun by playing word games such as Scrabble, Boggle, or Balderdash. Remember to also focus on understanding correct usage of words you already know.

Venolia reminds us of the goal we should always be working toward: “to have an array of words to choose from and use them wisely.” That doesn’t mean we should fill our sentences with words that most people don’t understand. Novotny agrees that a well-versed vocabulary isn’t meant to show off. “That behavior can actually be a deterrent to strong communication, because it can separate people from fully understanding each other and respecting each other,” she explains.

Watch your word diet closely. Avoid adopting lazy habits and increase your vocabulary intake so you can use words correctly and precisely communicate.

One fourth of our verbal discourse consists of a mere seventeen words—and, be, have, it, of, the, to, will, you, I, a, on, that, in, we, for, and us.

—Willard Espy, The Right Word


Be yourself when you speak. “Good speakers do two things well: they let their own personality come through, and they have a wide range of emotional expressiveness,” says Morgan. “That’s what charisma is—emotional expressiveness, the ability to show a range of genuine emotions. You need to let an audience know how you feel about what is important to you.”

Jennings says too often people talk like and try to project other people, when really they just need to tell their story. “Don’t try to be someone else,” he advises. “Say, ‘Here’s who I am, and here’s what I think.’” Listeners seem to have a built-in sensor that generally tells them when the speaker is being genuine. Novotny says, “If you lack commitment toward a topic, it will become transparent; you’ll lose your audience due to a lack of authenticity.” Remain loyal to yourself, and your audience will feel your genuineness and connect more powerfully.


Already your verbal health should have taken a turn for the better, simply because you’re more aware of the effect your words can have—for better or worse. Venolia reminds us that a wrong message or poor delivery can have serious consequences ranging from detrimental, such as a missed sale, to fatal, such as confusing flight instructions. “Conversely, knowing how to use words correctly and effectively can produce desirable results in everything from career advancement to civic involvement to personal relationships,” Venolia adds.

Although your blunders may not be broadcast to millions of viewers like the one Crisler witnessed, your words still affect those listening to you. Their effectiveness depends on the health of your word habits. Give yourself a verbal check up every so often to make sure you’re applying a purpose to your message, accurately diagnosing your audience, taking in your regular dose of listening, keeping up on your vocabulary intake, and sticking to the “you” diet.

To discourage slipping into poor communication habits, take the following advice from Crisler. When people find out he’s an English professor they often respond, “Oh, I really better watch what I say.” His question for them and all of us is, “Why don’t you always watch what you say?” Mend your speech a little, lest you mar your fortunes.

—William Shakespeare

Know the Difference?

Adverse: refers to conditions (unfavorable, hostile)

Averse: describes people (reluctant)—In adverse market conditions, investors are often averse to buying high-risk stocks.

Affect: verb meaning to influence—The protestors hoped to affect the vote.

Effect: noun meaning outcome or result—The protest had the desired effect.

Bad: use to describe the subject—The team feels bad about losing.

Badly: use to describe a verb—He performed badly on the exam.

Farther: refers to distance—I ran farther today than yesterday.

Further: indicates a greater degree—I’m looking into the matter further.

Fewer: describes things that can be counted—Fewer than fifty people attended.

Less: refers to quantities considered as a whole—I earned less income at my previous job.

Intercede: to plead on another’s behalf—The passenger interceded as the police officer started to write a ticket.

Intervene: to come between two things or points of time—Only five months intervened before they put the house up for sale.

Lay: verb meaning to place (needs an object)—Please lay the book on the table. Past tense of lay is laid—I laid the book on the table.

Lie: verb meaning to recline (doesn’t need object)—I’m going to lie down on the couch. Past tense of lie is lay—After dinner, I lay on the couch for a few minutes.

Lie: verb meaning to not tell the truth—I don’t lie when asked my age. Past tense of lie is lied—She lied about her age.

Who(m): refers to a person or animal with a name—Sebastian, who lives next door, borrowed my CD burner.

That: describes a family, company, country, or other entity—A company that provides generous health care benefits earns the loyalty of its employees.
For more tricky words, check out Jan Venolia’s The Right Word or Merriam–Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.


Article written by J. Melody Murdock
Illustration by Craig Frazier

J. Melody Murdock is former editor of Marriott Alumni Magazine and is now a freelance writer and editor based in Salt Lake City. She earned her BA in 2000 and master’s degree in mass communication in 2003 from BYU.


  1. “Meet the MasterMinds.” Retreived August 2006 at

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