On Becoming Articulate
Why Should You Care?
Words are like little gods. The pronoun "him" instead of "her," if used often enough, can dissuade a girl from science or math. The words you use determine the density of gray matter in your brain. They affect your political leanings, influence how you see reality, determine your level of confidence and thus, define what it means to be you. That's what words do.
As important as your words are in shaping your behavior, they are even more important in the way they shape the behavior of others. Your manner of speaking is, if nothing else, the central factor upon which people form assumptions about you. Whatever is your ultimate goal in life, chances are good you're going to have to communicate your way to it. And if greatness is your goal, well-spoken words are essential. Think about it. From Homer to Hemingway, Lincoln, Churchill, King, Obama-their words are why you know them.
The well-spoken few are viewed by others in a different way. They are thought of as more knowledgeable, more informed, and therefore expected to do more things. This law of great expectations is a powerful motivator. We all have an inherent need to meet expectations, whether they be high or low, and when expectations rise, we're inclined to rise with them. Our improvement then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: as others expect us to be better, we become so, and as we become so, they expect it further still.
How to Speak Like an Academic without Sounding Like One
The most accomplished speakers use words in ways that complement their thoughts and ideas, not overshadow them. They are able to adopt a scholarly air of authority, but without all those pretentious scholarly words. Take Barack Obama for instance, a man for whom the well-spoken word is a major source of power. President Obama understands, obeys, and exploits the most important commandment of communication: that it's not so much the words we use, as it is the way we use them. You hear it all the time: "Barack Obama is so articulate, so eloquent, so intelligent." But has he ever used a word any child couldn't comprehend?
It's not easy becoming articulate. For most of us, the process is a never-ending exercise in trial and error. We fumble our way along with the occasional foreign word here or big word there, all the while praying we're pronouncing and using these words correctly. And when we do dare to use these words, we risk casting ourselves as pretentious, awkwardly formal, academic, or nerdy. Have you ever used a lofty word and felt embarrassed at having done so? We've all been there. We hear others use these words with ease, but when we try them for size, they don't always fit. That's because we confuse formality with what we believe to be articulate speech. We deploy such language in an attempt to present ourselves as professional when, ironically, usually the opposite effect is achieved.
The same can be said for those who attempt to impress with big professorial words. While such language may seem "indubitably" clear and appropriate to them, it strikes the rest of us as more than a bit eccentric. The trick here is to achieve the authoritative and persuasive effects of formality and intellectualism without sounding too, well, formal or intellectual. What you are aiming for is an effect: you want to be regarded as the smartest authority in the room but without the least trace of awkwardness or pretension. And to that end, I present to you this book. Whether it be for writing or speaking, I think you will find it quite helpful.
A Few Words About Me
I began writing what would become this book when I decided, in the spring of 2006, to go back to school and complete my education. It was there in Cambridge that I would come to realize just how inarticulate I really was. And because I could find no easy way to lift my speech and prose quickly, I resolved to invent a way. It began simply enough; whenever I would happen upon an eloquent word or phrase, I would write it down and pair it with what I would have said otherwise. (All those common word entries you see in this thesaurus? That's me talking.) I did this for years, collecting words like butterflies, until it became increasingly apparent that my collection could be of use to others. So you could say that my authority on this subject stems not only from a determination to do something about my own predicament, but to do something about yours. My only hope is that this remarkable collection of words does as much for you in that regard as it has for me.