“I wish I could express myself the way he does!” Have you ever said that? If so, you are not alone, for many people today find it difficult to express themselves clearly.
But now, as never before, there is a need for clear expression. Businessmen and their employees must convince customers of the advantages of certain commodities or services. Public lecturers must hold the attention of their listeners with material that is both informative and interesting. Parents and children need to communicate their feelings to one another.
Why do so many people have difficulty in expressing themselves clearly?
What can be done to overcome this problem?
Obstacles to Clear Expression
At times emotions constitute an obstacle to clear expression. For example, a child who bursts into the house screaming after receiving a nasty gash at play will be unable to make clear what happened until he has calmed down. A person excited about some newly acquired information may try to “tell it all in one breath,” with resultant obscurity. Individuals who speak to live audiences may find that their mind “goes blank” at times due to nervousness. Clear expression involves having one’s emotions under control. But that is not all.
Our thoughts can be another hindrance to clear expression, for what a person says is merely an expression of what he thinks. If an idea is unclear in a person’s mind, that is how it will come out when he speaks. Clear expression, on the other hand, springs from clear, orderly thinking. That can be a challenge. Why so?
Because when we think of a subject for discussion a host of details come flooding into our consciousness all at once. The persons involved, the things that happened, the time, the place—everything can become fused together. If we are not careful we may just “think out loud,” resulting in conversation that rambles through disjointed phrases, side excursions and regressions. Disorderly thinking also causes “word whiskers” such as “uh,” “and-uh,” “so-uh.” Many individuals, upon hearing a recording of their own conversations, have been saddened to learn that the overriding impression of their speech was a series of prolonged “uuuhhhs.” Has that ever happened to you?
Getting Your Thoughts in Order
How can you develop the orderly thought patterns that produce clear expression? Keep in mind that it will not help your hearers if you just uncork tidbits of information as they come up into your mind. Clear expression requires careful thinking in advance. With regard to public speaking, Professor William G. Hoffman writes in the book How to Make Better Speeches: “The better speakers do their real thinking off their feet—in the home, in the office, on the sidewalks—anywhere but on the platform. They know that good talks grow out of contemplation, reflection and plan.”
This advance thinking should not spread out in all directions at once, but should follow a definite pattern. Professor Hoffman continues: “Good talks don’t spread out. They dig down. They try to answer the question, ‘For instance?’ They don’t take up a point only to drop it at once and go to something else.”
How can you gather such specific information? Many successful speakers and writers suggest sorting out facts under six headings that were described by English writer Rudyard Kipling as follows:
“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and
And How and Where and Who.”
These six questions lead to facts. If you develop these aspects separately in advance (as far as this is possible), your presentation will display orderliness and clarity. Of course, most people are not accustomed to thinking through a matter one aspect at a time. But you can develop this skill. In time clear thinking and expression will become almost automatic to you. Yet this alone does not guarantee that your hearers will understand what you say. Why not?
Inform YOUR Audience
Clear expression also involves knowing the type of audience that you will address. Different people may be interested in different aspects of a subject and this will influence how you develop it. If you are relating an event, some may be satisfied simply with “what” happened. But when trying to persuade someone to take a certain course of action, you will probably have to emphasize “why.” Others may want to know the place, the time and other circumstances.
Related to this is the need to find out how much your audience already knows about your subject. To illustrate: If a person inquired of you how to get to a certain location, you might begin by asking: “Do you know where Broad Street is?” If he did, you would start directing him from there. But if not, it would be necessary to lay some prior groundwork. Similarly, in striving to make yourself clear it is good to ask:
How much do my listeners already know about this matter?
What foundation must I lay before these points can be made clear?
Driving the Point Home
Has anyone ever interrupted you, pleading: “Would you please get to the point”? This touches upon another important aspect of clear expression, namely, knowing exactly what point you want to put across when you speak. Some have found it helpful in preparing a speech or other type of public presentation to write out the main point in one sentence. Then they divide the material into sections and place a one-sentence summary of each section at its beginning. This reminds the speaker of what he especially wants to put across.
Sequence is another important factor if your hearers are to get the point. Which aspect should come first? Which one last? In what order should you place your main points? This, too, depends upon your audience and the effect you wish to achieve. When describing an automobile accident to a policeman, you might tell the details in the order of their occurrence (a chronological sequence). But you would most likely relate these same details in an entirely different order (a logical sequence) when advising your child to steer clear of dangerous intersections.
It is important to realize, too, that people think much faster than you are able to speak. Minds tend to wander, and if this goes unchecked, they may miss the point of your presentation. What can you do?
Employ repetition. As you progress through your material, repeat the main points that have been discussed, relating them to the central theme. Some have found it effective to incorporate a concise summary of all the main points in the conclusion of a talk. Repetition serves both to emphasize the key thoughts and to keep people listening right to the end.
Illustrations are a further aid in driving the point home. When you use illustrations, you impress meaningful pictures on the minds of your listeners. Well-chosen illustrations couple intellectual appeal with emotional impact. They stir the thinking processes and make it easier to grasp new thoughts. But illustrations can do as much harm as good if they are not carefully selected. Make sure the ones you choose are simple and that the audience appreciates why you are using them. Choose illustrations that support your main points and make them easier to understand. And do not use too many illustrations.
Now for the conclusion. This is of the utmost importance in driving the point home. What people hear last is often what they remember first. Though your conclusion can include a summary of what you have said, it may be unwise to limit it to this. Here is where you must show your audience what to do. The book entitled “Public Speaking—As Listeners Like It!” says: “The end of your speech, like the end of your pencil, should have a point. . . . It must answer the audience’s question: ‘SO WHAT?’ . . . In the conclusion of your speech, ask your audience for some specific action.”
You Can Learn the Art of Clear Expression
Some people will find that clear expression comes relatively easy. With others it may seem like an elusive goal. But if a person really wants to express himself clearly and is willing to work hard at it, he is sure to progress. Are you willing to put forth the required effort? Here is a simple method for practice:
Think of a worthwhile subject. Then draw six columns on a sheet of paper, heading them with the aforementioned fact-finding words (who, what, why, when, where and how). Take one aspect and jot down what you can find out about it. Fill in details in as many columns as you find to be practical. Do the same with another aspect, and so forth. The result will be an orderly arrangement of facts.
The next thing is to determine how to use this information. It will help to take another sheet of paper and write out (in one sentence, if possible) the main idea that you want to impress on your listeners. Then briefly note the type of audience you will address and what action you want them to take. Another space can be set aside for examples or illustrations.
Having these things down on paper will help you to develop an outline of what you want to say. After practicing in this way for a while, you will find that you are able to carry out much of this process in your mind alone. Clear thinking and clear expression will then become a part of you.
The art of clear expression is within your grasp. But it calls for time, patience and hard work. Are you willing to put forth the necessary effort? You will be glad that you did—and so will your listeners.
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