Strengthen your words – 5 simple speaking tips you can use today

cool-729445_640If you use weak words, you weaken your message. So to make what you say more vivid and compelling, you should rarely use words like “very” or “really”.

For instance, instead of saying “very good” or “very bad”, you could use stronger adjectives – like “superb” or “awful”.

That’s what well-known public-speaking blogger John Zimmer wrote recently, and I agree.

In fact John shared a handy list of almost 150 words you could use when you’re tempted to say “very”. (The list was originally compiled by Jennifer Frost.)

Does that mean you should never say “very”? No, it doesn’t. As John says:

“[Very] has its place when used sparingly”

To my mind, that’s because sometimes when you avoid “very”, you might cause 1 or more of these 4 problems, where you choose a stronger word that:

  • Is over-used.
  • Conveys slightly the wrong meaning.
  • Isn’t conversational.
  • Confuses the audience.

For instance, do you know what “indolent” means? I didn’t, and if you used that word in a talk, I think many people (perhaps most) would wonder what you meant. (It means “lazy”, and it’s in the list of 150 suggested words John posted.)

In fact (depending as always on your audience) some listeners might even have trouble with words in the list that are probably commoner than “indolent” – like “exasperating”, “serene”, or “sage”.

Even in this post, I was tempted to say the word-list John shared was “very handy”, because “handy” seemed too weak by itself. Yet alternatives like “vital”, “indispensable”, “neat”, or “nifty” had problems of their own – having slightly the wrong meaning, being less conversational, being ambiguous, or possibly confusing some of my overseas audience.

So, here are 5 techniques you could use (alone or combined) when you’re tempted to use words like “very” or “really”:

Technique Example: Instead of saying “The box was very heavy” you could
Synonym Say “The box was hefty
Exaggeration Say “The box weighed a ton!
Metaphor Say “The box was heavy – like carrying a corpse
Vocal variety Say “The box was heavy!” (strongly emphasising the key word)
Body language Gesture as though carrying a heavy box, perhaps adding a strained facial expression (or biting your lip)


Your turn

Now you’ve seen the techniques and examples – plus my reasons for suggesting them – it’s over to you:

  • How important do you think it is to avoid words like “very” or “really”?
  • What other techniques might you use?


See also

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5 thoughts on “Strengthen your words – 5 simple speaking tips you can use today

  1. This is great. I’m guilty of using really and very far too much! 🙂
    Finding better, stronger words is worth the time and effort because those words create a greater impact on the audience. I think the audience will better remember what you said if you find better words. Thanks for sharing.

    • I’m glad you liked the post, and thanks for your comment. This is just one reason why rehearsing, and recording the result, is so helpful, as it shows up how often “very” or “really” crop up, and gives time to think of other options.

      This week I watched some videos by a so-called “public-speaking and social-media coach”, and at times she only managed to say 2 words before she said another “like” or “umm”. I’m not exaggerating – it was shocking.

      I commented requesting that she watch her videos before posting them, and recommended some resources by Craig Valentine, former World Champion public speaker.

  2. Thanks for sharing the post Craig and I like how you have expanded the topic. I think the most important phrase in your post is “depending as always on your audience”. A speaker should always adjust his or her language for the audience. For example, having worked in the United Nations and living in central Europe, I have often spoken to audiences where the majority of people were not native speakers. I choose simpler words than I would when speaking to native speakers. Not because they are dumb – they most definitely are not! – but because I want to be understood.

    And yes, some of the words in the list like “indolent” should be used even more sparingly than “very”!

    • Thanks for your comment John. The list in your post’s very helpful. (Note the v-word! 😉 )

      The fact is, some phrases with “very” (like “very helpful” or “very heavy”) are tough to reword. Of course, it can be done, but the result might be no better than the original (for the reasons listed in my post).

      I think Mark Twain and Florence King went too far when they said “very” could always be deleted. Likewise, I’ve seen other people claim that words like “just”, “that”, or (ironically) “always” should never be used. But absolutes are risky, so (like you) I prefer to allow for exceptions.

      • Again, I agree, even though it is hard to disagree with Mark Twain! The other important thing to remember is that Twain and others were focussed more on the written word than the spoken word. I believe that one’s use of “very” should be less restrictive when speaking than when writing. One of the classic speech writing rules is that a speech should be written to be heard, not to be read. To that extent, one’s use of “very” can be a bit more liberal when speaking.

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