How does Language Help you Persuade?

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Dare to be different
— Phil Crothers

The words you use tell the audience a great deal about you. Is your language colloquial? Is it highly technical? Do you use long, complicated sentences, or short, sharp sentences? Do you use unnecessarily long words?

To a certain extent, your language habits are firmly in place. You might use colloquial phrases without even noticing. For example, you might not even notice that you say ‘yeah’ instead of ‘yes’. The audience might not be so quick to overlook it. The good news is it is never too late to improve your language habits. You can avoid falling into several easily identified traps.

Colloquial Language

The first step is related to people who are new speakers of a language. New language speakers often remark that colloquial expressions are the hardest aspect of a language to master. If you use expressions that are unfamiliar to some audience members, you will isolate and frustrate them. If you do catch yourself using such phrases, quickly stop and rephrase. Think about the pace of your deliver. Slow down your speech, and simplify your words.



Most professions have their own language, comprised of technical jargon. For example, computer programmers talk about XML, and Linux. It can be difficult for a layperson to communicate within this subculture if they are not fluent in the language. While jargon can make communication more efficient for members within a subculture, it can exclude non-members from participating effectively.

If you really must use technical jargon, at least give your audience a ‘cushion’. The first time you use the term, explain it thoroughly. If you can, relate it to a simpler, better-known term. If you mention it again, use it in a context that makes it as clear as possible. Do this with all the jargon you use. For example, do not assume that because you have been saying ‘ASEAN’ for years that your audience will know you are talking about the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Offensive Language

Another easy mistake to avoid is the use of potentially offensive language. Some forms of language are obviously inappropriate. For example, swearing during a presentation will almost never be appropriate, even if you swear amongst your colleagues.

Offensive language can often be more subtle than simply swearing. Read the following statements and see if you can pick what might be potentially offensive.

Teacher: “When I am speaking to the parent of one of my students, I like to ask what expectations she has for her child’s progress”.

CEO: “I am looking for a new manager who will speak his mind.”

The first statement suggests that only mothers are actively involved in educating their children. This is potentially offensive to both men and women. The second statement assumes the new manager must be male. Simple and unremarkable statements like these can spell disaster. Avoid terms that imply that certain occupations and roles are gender specific. Instead of chairman, say chairperson, instead of stewardess use flight attendant.

Gender is not the only potential minefield. You should also be aware of the way you talk about age, ethnicity, marital status, religion, disability, culture and sexuality. Reflection and restraint using language can prevent disasters.



Pauses can be incredibly effective. When you pause, people look at you immediately. They hear the break in transmission and wonder what is coming next. Pauses assist with transition, or can be used for dramatic effect.

Train yourself to pause rather than saying ‘um’ or ‘ah’. Even if you forget where you are up to, a pause while you stop to recollect is better than an embarrassed “Uh – I just have to look at my notes to see where I am up to.” A five second pause is plenty of time for you to remember, and at the end of that time you will have everyone’s attention focused firmly on you.

Words are Tools

Choose your tools carefully. Use vivid language that will stir the emotions. Strunk and White’s advice for writers sums it up well:

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”

Use active language, use verbs, and talk about real things not abstractions. If you want action at the end of the presentation use an active style. For example do not say “After your completion of the registration process, implementation of the guidelines should be accomplished immediately” say “after registering, implement the guidelines.”

Helpful Hints

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  • Avoid sloppy grammar. Instead of, “I am real pleased”, say, “I am very pleased.” The Economist Style Guide at gives some useful tips.
  • Use positive language. Research in psychology shows that people understand and recall positively worded sentences more quickly and accurately than negatively worded ones. For example, people will respond better to “Treat people with respect” than “Do not treat people with disrespect.”
  • Repeat key words.
  • Check your presentation for statements or words that may offend or intimidate your audience.
  • Erase “um”, “ah” and “err” from your vocabulary.

Getting Better

Record yourself on tape or ask a friend to tell you if you use phrases that might irritate, annoy or distract an audience. Then monitor how many times you use that phrase in a presentation or ask a friend to do this for you. Often just being more aware of the phrase by counting how many times you use the phrase will quickly eliminate the problem. WE recall one colleague who reduced his use of the word ‘basically’ from 40 times per hour to four times per hour by asking a friendly member of the audience to record how many times he used the word. This raised his awareness so much that the problem quickly disappeared.