Making Meaning Sure

by Stephen Boyd | September 30, 2003

Meaning is in people, not words. Thus when speaking to an audience, seek to speak words that will have the same meaning to both you and the listener.

An employer while interviewing a candidate for a job asked this question: "If you could have a conversation with someone living or dead, who would it be?"

The applicant thought for a moment and replied, "The living one." The listener may have an entirely different interpretation than we intended! So use the following tips to help guarantee correct meaning of your message.

Give an example of the concept you want the audience to interpret a certain way. If I’m talking about the catch and release approach to fishing, I could tell about the enjoyment of landing a 14-inch smallmouth bass. I lift it out of the water, carefully remove the hook, examine its beauty, gently place it back in the water, and let it swim back into the stream.

Provide your definition of a concept to clarify your meaning for the audience. In discussing giving an extemporaneously prepared speech, I might add that an extemporaneous presentation is one that is carefully prepared and thought out, but not memorized.

Another way of insuring a specific meaning of an idea is to use a comparison. Linking the familiar to the unfamiliar will clarify meaning. "In preparing a speech, arrange materials in some specific order," I might say to an audience. Then I could add that doing so is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Eventually every piece fits.

Finally, avoid using emotionally charged words. For example, a dentist in talking about caring for teeth would best avoid "root canal," "drill," and "pulp." If a concept has strong emotional content, use a synonym. If you are presenting ways to motivate within a company, avoid "lazy employees" in favor of "employees that lack ambition." The more emotion a word conjures up in the minds of the listeners, the more skewed the meaning can become.

Remember: words don’t have meaning; the meaning is provided by the people who use them. Thus make your messages people-oriented by including examples, comparisons, definitions, and non-emotional words.

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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