It’s time for you to speak. Everyone’s eyes are on you. They’re expecting something from you, and you want to make sure that you say something good if you want to find success in speaking…

What do you usually do in this situation? Well, if those people listening are important (teacher, boss, clients, etc.), then you probably plan ahead, don’t you?

But what if they are just colleagues, or friends, or someone you met on the street while traveling around Europe? In this case, you probably just speak, and let the words come out, right or wrong, don’t you?

How accurate are your sentences then, when you don’t plan? Do you speak confidently?

And what if you plan everything, word for word? How fluent can you be?

You may have noticed that there is a fine line here. Planning every detail will make you sound like a robot. Not planning a thing might make you sound like Tarzan.

You’ve got to be prepared, but not over-prepared. You’ve got to be able to think on your feet.

So how do I find a balance?

Firstly, ask yourself this question: how important is this speech event?

For example, if you’ve got to give a presentation of last year’s sales figures to the board of directors, I’d say it’s a pretty damn important speech event. But, if you’re asking for directions on the streets of Rome, well, a mistake or two won’t hurt you, as long as you can understand the directions.

More formal events need more planning, but they also need more flexibility. And they most certainly do not require big words.

“If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where
simpler language will do.”
― Daniel Kahneman

There are two disadvantages to using complex language:

  1. It slows you down. Trying to think of words that are less frequently used takes more time and effort. Why would you say “differentiate” when you could just say “tell the difference”? Or “Shall we commence proceedings” when you could just say “let’s begin”?

  2. It makes you look like a showoff. Nobody cares about your vocabulary—they only want to hear your message! Nowadays, simplicity is our priority in communication. Big and fancy words don’t usually help to make your message clearer.

Planning as you go for success in speaking

So, as you may have noticed, it’s not necessary to plan excessively, even for those extremely important board meetings. The best approach is to have a clear purpose for your communication, and then plan as you go: be dynamic and flexible in your speaking to adapt to your listeners.

This is thinking one step ahead of your mouth. Or even two steps, if possible.

It certainly can be difficult, even in your native language. This requires training of the mind, awareness of the language, and discipline in your learning. It doesn’t happen in one day.

The most important way to do this is to keep an open mind.

To keep an open mind while speaking means to make sure that you don’t limit yourself to just one or two ideas. We humans have a habit of getting tunnel vision when we think something is very important.

Tunnel vision is when you focus so much on one thing that you cannot notice other things around you. For example, if you focus so much on finding an exact word, you get stuck and the communication breaks down. Instead, it is better to explain the general idea or concept, or just simplify.

This is flexibility in communication: the ability to change direction to make sure the listener is able to follow you.

Techniques for thinking on your feet

  • Be in control: Speak even if you don’t know exactly what you want to say. Use fillers to keep your place. Choose 2 or 3 phrases and make them automatic. Some examples are
  • Well, let me see here…
  • What I mean is…
  • You know…
  • Think ahead: Before you speak, use your brain! What is your purpose? Which words will you need to communicate a precise message? How will you put them together? If you have time, make a shortlist of phrases (do not write everything out—you will sound like a robot!)
  • Be flexible: If you don’t know the word, keep going! There are many other words you can use. You can
  • Use a synonym or antonym (same or opposite meaning)
  • Explain why or how we use it (the importance of it or the method of use)
  • Talk about the general idea (most listeners try to guess meaning from the context automatically)

Of course, in addition to using these strategies, it is also important to have confidence in your abilities in order to find success in speaking English!

Did you learn something? Help your friends to learn too!

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