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The Slings & Arrows Of Outrageous Fortune

One of the challenges during the Covid lockdown was home schooling. Suddenly I, like millions of others, was trying to juggle work whilst being my son’s teacher. To be fair, whilst stressful, I really enjoyed it – and learnt much about his learning style and his school’s expectations.



The one thing I did notice was the way he skipped over words he didn’t understand. He didn’t question them. He just ignored them and carried on as best he could – often not fully understanding the premise of the sentence, paragraph or page.


Whilst my job was to pull him up on that, and put his nose in a dictionary (!), I did think about how it translated to speaking.


Because the truth is… your audience won’t have a dictionary on them. Meanwhile most adults have a vocabulary range of 20,000 – 35,000 words versus the Oxford English Dictionary’s 171,000+ active words. And apparently, the majority of us stop learning new words from middle age (I take issue with that but hey…).


So when you’re preparing a presentation, speech or otherwise, keep the language clean, simple and unpretentious. Bear in mind that your audience will likely have varying levels of education and word recognition – and by showing off with your amazing vocabulary, you will likely be leaving some (or all) of your listeners missing the point of what you are attempting to communicate!


“Oh but you’re aiming for the lowest common denominator with all this dumbing down” you might respond. And I get it. But unlike the written word, where the reader can take the time to look up and luxuriate in a bath of new words and phrases, that option isn’t available in the ‘quick shower’ or public speaking.


There may be something in your argument as the article I’m quoting from suggests that Shakespeare’s combined written works totalled 25,000 unique words whereas the Wall Street Journal used fewer than 20,000 unique words in its newspapers in an entire decade.


But I want you to communicate your message to as wide an audience audience, and as effectively, as possible. So I fear you’ll need to embrace more of the Wall Street Journal in your presentation rather than cuddling up to the bosom of the bard.

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