One day in school, my teacher had the class do that awful read-aloud exercise where you go around the room and each student reads a paragraph out loud from the textbook. (What an awful thing to do to a kid!)
I did a quick count of the kids ahead of me and determined I’d be reading paragraph 13. Plenty of time to practice, I figured, so I wouldn’t mess up. Trouble was, I was actually supposed to read paragraph 12. (Turns out I was lousy at reading and at math.)
When we got to my turn, I read my paragraph so quickly, trying to end the terrifying moment, that I misread two words: assures (which I read as “assumes”) and daring (which I pronounced “darling”). Luckily, this was junior high, so of course nobody made fun of me.
Most people preparing a presentation to colleagues, or planning to lead a meeting, write their talking points out as notes. Problem is, we forget that some words are easy to mistake for others if you only glance at them quickly during your talk. Other words can trip you up because they’re just hard to say. And still other words and phrases can confuse your audience.
So, if you’re preparing a speech, or just planning to say a few words to introduce a colleague in a meeting, you want to make sure all the words you plan to use are easy for you to read and say and for your audience to hear.
A few suggestions:
1. Avoid using words you might misread during your talk when you glance at your notes.
If you wrote, “It assures our success” on a note card for a presentation you were going to give, it would be easy to mistakenly read it as “assumes” if you glanced only briefly at it during the talk – especially if you were talking fast.
If you’re going to refer to written notes during a live presentation, think through the words you’re writing down – and ask yourself if you can imagine misreading any of those words when the crowd is in front of you (“darling” for “daring,” for example).
2. Watch out for words you regularly stumble over.
A confession: I almost always mispronounce “distribute” and variations of it – distributing, distribution, distributor, etc. I’ll often place the emphasis on the wrong syllable and say “dis-tributors” or “distrib-utors.”
So I never use any variation of distribute in my public talks. It’s one less thing to worry about.
During a live presentation, you get just one chance to deliver each line, each word, flawlessly. If you stumble over or mispronounce a word, it can severely disrupt your flow. If it happens more than a few times, it can also make both you and your audience uncomfortable.
Monitor yourself for any words that trip you up – your own versions of “distribute”– and make a point to keep those words out of your talks.
It’s also a good idea not to use long, complex words in your presentations. All of us occasionally trip over words like “inexplicable,” “extemporaneous” or “demagoguery.” So try not to include words like these in your presentations.
3. Avoid words or phrases that might confuse your audience.
Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in her book On Speaking Well, tells an interesting story about a foreign-policy speech she wrote for President Reagan. After reviewing the draft, Reagan’s chief of staff handed it back to Noonan and told her to change the phrase “muscular altruism.”
When Noonan asked why, he said, “It sounds like a disease.”
What the chief of staff realized was that when people hear the word muscular, they think “dystrophy.” Add to that the fact that the second word in Noonan’s phrase is a word most people don’t know and which ends in “ism,” and you can see where the whole phrase could confuse and even frighten the public.
When crafting your presentation, think through any words or phrases that your audience might misconstrue or even hear incorrectly (because they’re so used to hearing those words in different contexts) – and find different words to make the same points.
One final thought: If you work for the Department of Education, please do whatever you can to stop that horrible read-aloud practice that fills school kids with terror.