PRESENTATION HACK: Big Words, Lingo, & Relatability

I had just finished my presentation at the police training industry's largest, most popular conference. The room was packed. A trusted colleague, who had been in the audience, approached me privately in the hotel lobby...

"You use a lot of big words."


"I don't mean that as a compliment."

Huh?!? My spirits shifted. You might be familiar with the post-speaking event euphoria that I was experiencing -- a release of the stress and anxiety that preceded the session. But this man's critique put a quick end to my happy mood.

But he was correct. I used terminology that was not particularly well-known in my audience of police instructors. If I'm honest with myself, I used some of those words in attempts to demonstrate my worthiness, knowledge, and rigorous self-study of the topics at hand. As a first-time invited speaker, and as the youngest person in the room...I wanted to impress. I wanted to be respected for the new ideas I was introducing.

That backfired.


Lately, I've been seeing increased online chatter and been in more real life discussions about this sort of phenomenon. Most recently, I engaged with this LinkedIn post, by responding:
Impact is achieved not through having an appropriate, most efficient word, but having the words that effectively connect with the listener.
I believe this to grow more and more true as I analyze, experience, and debate the phenomenon.

What does the opposition argue?

That in order to change culture or minds, we must change the language first. 

That speakers should be using the most efficient, most accurate, most appropriate, most descriptive words that convey the concepts, theories, or ideas. 

That it's too juvenile. Not academically accurate enough. 

That speakers (or authors) should not dumb-down their language, but rather incentivize the students/listeners to increase their vocabulary to match that of the teacher. 

That there are specific terms that encompass that. 

That speakers should not be burdened with constantly defining words that s/he uses. It's about efficiency. 

In essence: That speakers should not be forced to change for the sake of the audience not knowing. 

Luckily, some of these folks are easy to spot. They use language such as "accessible" to describe talks or written works that are easy to read by lay persons. (What they really mean with "accessible" is that something is dumbed-down for uneducated people like me, so my pea-brain can "access" those big ideas.)

They also say "words mean things." This means that we all need to fall in line with what the speaker thinks they mean. Or how a particular group defines them. Or else. 


That hard-received lesson I learned following that conference hotel lobby was exactly the opposite of what is being argued by the "accessible" and "words mean things" crowd. 


So what is it that I learned after that "big words" presentation?

You've got to meet people where they are. I teach my elementary school-aged kids about all sorts of complexity theories, decision-making science, and sense-making concepts. You better believe that I talk differently to my seven (7) year old daughter than I do with and an experienced military officer with deep knowledge of the OODA Loop or a young software engineer hell-bent on everything #Agile. 

Understand the lingo and jargon they use. Lingo is a shortcut. It make for efficient communications. But outside of an industry, community, or team, lingo actually hinders communication. When I am with my work team, I use abbreviations, acronyms, and jargon that outsiders wouldn't understand. But when I'm talking about the same thing with outsiders, I've got to change my language. For them. But really: for us. 
Relate to them. Tell them stories. Use analogies. Tap into imagery. Understand emotion. Have such a deep understanding of the material, and an appreciation for stories that you can deliver your schtick around a campfire. To Cub Scouts. To teenage punk rockers. To medical doctors. To stay-at-home moms. To starchy academics. To political protestors. To your grandma.

Go out of your way to define and discuss big words. It's not the work of your audience to get out their dictionaries to keep up with your vast academic knowledge. It's up to you. Yeah, it's not as seamless as chatting up your intellectual peers. Still. Figure this out. This is what should be meant by "change the language first." Teach the words; don't assume they'll immediately adopt them because you say they're correct.


I'll summarize this in a short: If you're using big words and expecting others to keep up, you're an arrogant dick. (Just like some thought of me after that "big words" presentation a decade ago. That's the impression I left with them.)

If you want to impress me, find out what makes me tick. What mental models I've etched. What imagery brings about what emotions. What captures my attention. 

Then you've got me.


Aside from writing on a variety of topics, I publish a column of blog posts under the label Presentation Hack. Check them out for ideas, tips, and tricks to better public speaking or classroom experiences!


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Connect with Lou on LinkedIn and follow LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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