A recent Speak Previews® examined syntax and figurative language, two elements of style that contribute to how you express a message, thought, or piece of evidence, whatever its content may be. A reader asked about additional areas in which a communicator's choices shape style; others asked about adapting style to an audience. We'll address both.


A third element of style is diction—the words you choose —whether the style you seek is academic, conversational, hyperbolic, or any one of infinite other possibilities. While you always want to select the right word, you do have choices, as any thesaurus shows.

In English, these choices include Latinate words (usually polysyllabic, often abstract) and Germanic words (usually shorter, often concrete). Inundate or flood? Salary or wage? Perspiration or sweat? In many cases, Latinate words sound more formal and more official than Germanic ones, which tend to be basic, everyday words. No wonder, then, that the Germanic words sound less formal. They may sound livelier, however. And, because they tend to be so concrete, they are more likely to create images in a reader's or listener's mind than are Latinate words.

Another aspect of diction to consider is that some words weaken rather than strengthen a message. Among such words are those that "weasel," deflecting responsibility, misleading an audience, or adding unwarranted ambiguity. Other groups of words are better omitted because they add no meaning; their presence, in fact, can cloud meaning because they muddy the stream of words from which an audience makes sense. Qualifiers such as "really" or "very" can be such words as can phrases such as "sort of" or "kind of." And you can—and should—always omit redundant expressions such as "exact same," "basic fundamentals," and "evolve over time."

Stay sensitive to diction; words send messages by the fact of their inclusion.


It's not always easy to adjust style. One client told us he had developed a reputation as being overly formal and somewhat boring when he gave presentations to his group. He decided to adjust parts of his presentation style. With his first effort, he went to an extreme. He tried to tell jokes, and he brought in a few props. His audience was surprised, but also embarrassed because he looked so uncomfortable.

For his next presentation, instead of telling jokes he told a story about a professional experience, one that had caused him some pain but that was humorous because it played on his accustomed formality. That broke the ice. From then on, his colleagues expected him to try something new. He began one presentation wearing old-fashioned motorcycle goggles, which he worked perfectly into his introduction. From that beginning he moved into a style closer to his previous one, but now his audience appreciated his opening and was more receptive to his messages.

Speakers at an FDA Advisory Committee meeting, too, may address the same audience but have different purposes. Asked to explain the Medical Landscape, which basically establishes a medical context, a speaker must realize that the audience won't be receptive to a personal style. It expects a more academic approach. But if the speaker were instead delivering a Clinical Perspective, the audience would accept or even expect a personal style, one that reflects concern for patients as individuals. The speaker's examples would likely include anecdotes or small stories, and first-person pronouns would be suitable.

Work into any adaptation of your style your audience's characteristics and expectations as well as your purpose. Some will vary widely, others hardly at all. Some adjustments will work well, others not. Some you will continue to refine; others, abandon.

Whether in diction or overall style, changes often create discomfort. Accept it as a growing pain, perhaps a small price to pay for adding to your copia, that valuable collection of the ways and means through which you communicate well.