Be Careful What You Speak

by Stephen Boyd | February 28, 2003

Former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott learned how important it is to be careful what you say in a speech. In what seemed to be simply complimentary remarks at the celebration of Strom Thurmond's one hundredth birthday, he made what he called "winging it" comments, praising the 1948 presidential bid of segregationist candidate Thurmond. The furor in the aftermath of the speech made him resign his post as Senate Republican leader.

The wrong words in a speech can affect your credibility and destroy any positive impact the speech might have had. How can we avoid having to apologize for what we say? How can we be sure that what we say in a speech will increase our credibility and insure acceptance of our content?

First, never "wing it" as Lott said he did. In a public speaking situation, there is no place for speaking without thinking first of what you are going to say. Even if you are not supposed to speak publicly at an event, consider any remote possibility that you might be called upon to "say a few words" and be prepared to do so if the occasion should arise. This is especially true when you are a part of ceremonial events where various ones might be called upon to toast the person or affirm the promotion or birthday. If because of your position you might be asked to say a few words, have a "stock" story or comment that you can use in an impromptu situation. Then you will have confidence that the audience will accept what you say. Even with comedians, few "ad libs" are without forethought and often have been used many times before in similar situations.

Second, consider carefully your audience. There may be a segment of the group which might be sensitive to an issue that you address. For example, if you have older people in the room, be careful about what you say concerning retirement or leisure time or growing old. Check out words or phrases you may use which have more than one meaning and could offend a segment of the audience. The word "conservative" has many connotations and you want to make sure the audience understands your meaning if you use that word.

Third, practice what you plan to say. Though in most situations you don’t want to memorize or write down exactly what you plan to say, you do want to practice out loud the content of your speech. Doing so will help you avoid "slips of the tongue" in the actual speaking situation. Remember: if you don’t practice what you plan to say, then the actual speaking situation becomes a practice session, and there is too much at stake when you speak in public to let that happen. By practicing you can identify the way you explain or refer to something and make changes if a word or phrase does not come out with the meaning or emphasis you want the idea to have.

You will not have to apologize for the content of your speech if you have given careful consideration to what you plan to say. Take a little more time before the speech to incorporate the above principles; by not having to retract or apologize for what you said, you will avoid embarrassment and wasted time afterwards. Far better to say something instantly forgettable than to say something negatively memorable! 

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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