Laura Petrolino

The Communications Pro’s Guide to Effective Word Choice

By: Laura Petrolino | June 5, 2017 | 

The Communications Pro's Guide to Effective Word Choice On December 8th, 1941, then President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and asked Congress to declare war.

He began the address with one of the most famous and known lines from a speech to this day.

And one that serves as a powerful example of the importance of specific and strategic word choice:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

How One Word Changed it All

“….a date which will live in infamy…”

Six words very recognizable words.

Even for people not obsessed with history, the words sound familiar. 

And while legend goes that FDR dictated this entire speech to his secretary in one pass, he did make a few word choice edits after the initial dictation.

The most notable: To change “world history” to “infamy.”

What did this do?

It subtly changed a fairly neutral statement to strong judgement call.

And to set the tone for the rest of the speech, where he would make his case for war (to a nation already exhausted from years of war).

One word changed the context of the speech, and in turn helped focus listeners in the direction FDR wished, while they listened to the remainder of the speech.

No doubt FDR was a communications pro in every way.

From the platforms he communicated on, to how he delivered information, both he and Eleanor changed the way the President (and his wife, in this case) communicated with the American people. 

(I’ll probably write more about them both soon. I’m rather obsessed with both of our Roosevelt presidents. Additionally, FDR and I share a birthday, so obviously, we are bonded.)

His use of word choice is one example of that.

Word Choice Matters to Communications Pros

Word choice matters to all professionals, and even more acutely to communications pros.

Our job is to consistently and specifically communicate with a target audience.

We do so in a variety of ways, including media relations, social media, email marketing, and of course, the content we write for our both our own and influencer sites.

To communicate effectively we must be extremely aware of word choice at all times.

One word can, and will, change it all.

Things to Consider for Proper Word Choice

Definition: Obvious? Yes, but so often we use words incorrectly.

We do this because popular culture does and we hear it so often we think it is correct.

As communications pros it’s not OK for us to be OK with using a word incorrectly.

We must set the tone for proper word use.

That means using a word based on its actual definition.

Nuance: Beyond definition, some words take on certain nuances.

These nuances, whether correct and aligned with the actual definition and/or our actual intent or not, matters.

If a word makes our prospect feel or perceive our message a certain way—and one we don’t intend—we shouldn’t use it.

Rhythm: The best sentences have a certain musical quality to them.

A word might be technically right, but it just doesn’t flow well with the sentence it’s used in.

Depth: In most cases, we want our words to carry as much meaning as possible.

We have a limited amount of space and time to get our messages across.

We need to make sure we take full advantage of every opportunity we have with word choice that has depth.

To use the FDR example: “Infamy” as a word, has much more meaning and depth than “world history.”

How to Improve Your Vocabulary

The better your vocabulary, the better your ability to choose words effectively.

Additionally, the better your understanding of language, the better your word choice.

We should work constantly to improve both.

Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Read great books: Reading amazingly well-written fiction and non-fiction will help your word choice. It’s hard to really understand how powerful well-chosen words and well-crafted sentence can be until we hear them used magnificently over and over and over again.
  • Listen to great speeches: Likewise, great speeches have some of the best use of specific and strategic vocabulary you’ll find anywhere. Make it a habit to listen to, and read the transcript of, really great speeches often.
  • Make the thesaurus your BFF: I have bookmarked on my computer and I use it at least once or twice a day. Don’t let your word choice become stale and non-evolving. Constantly be aware of the words you choose and look them up to see if there might be a better, more specific choices.
  • Be aware of commonly misused words: There are many words that are often interchanged improperly. Here is a great list to get you started.
  • Read what you write out loud: This will help you understand rhythm better and put together better sentences. It will also help you make sure what you write makes sense to those not in your head.
  • Try to write with as few words as possible: Gini’s rolling her eyes at me right now because I definitely have the gift of loquaciousness. Writing with as few words as possible is something I work on constantly. And I’m getting better. I mean, look—this post is less than 1,000 words! That’s a miracle for me. Make it a game with yourself to see how few words you can use to communicate your message. What you’ll find is less is almost always more and people will understand what you want to say better if you do so in fewer words.

What tips would you add to this list?

About Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

  • Bill Dorman

    True story, @TheJackB @JoshWilner likes to learn a new word a day, every time I come across an interesting one I forward it to him. Josh is a pretty good story teller btw….just sayin’….

    Communicating, like writing takes some practice and commitment but it’s well worth the effort.

    I might not be able to do a lot, but one thing I can do is read and do feel it helps me communicate better.

  • paulakiger

    Thank you for this 999 word, post, Laura! (No, I didn’t count.) The other thing we can do is have other people read what we have written and give us honest feedback … then BE RECEPTIVE TO IT. I struggle with this — if I think I have made a point clearly but a reader “doesn’t get it” or the most common “you use such big words” — it can be really off-putting when it’s truly just my love of words but if they are repulsive instead of attractive to a reader, I need to know!

    • Hahahaha! I was wondering if someone would catch the word count of this. Progress is small, but as long as you are moving forward…..

      And yes, feedback is important, especially from people you trust. There is a fine line between being a good writer and a logophile. Sometimes I write a sentence and on first read I think “I need every single one of these words to really make my point.” And then I step back and get over myself and realize, no in fact I do not….just because I love to hear myself talk, doesn’t mean everyone else does.

  • Thesaurus bookmarked. Thank you for that.

  • Of course, technically, it should be “a date THAT will live in infamy.” But we’ll give it an “old-timey” grammar pass …

  • I came across an example of the importance of nuance today. In the How I Built This podcast, Guy Raz called Haim Saban (producer of Power Rangers) a hustler. Saban denied this description because he is accustomed to the traditional use. Raz had to explain it is now a good thing, that it is now affiliated with an entrepreneurial spirit.

  • I didn’t roll my eyes! You do have the gift of loquaciousness, but it’s not because you use 16 words when one suffices. It’s because you make jokes in parenthesis. Which are hilarious and should not go away.

  • Russell Guerrero

    I’m puzzled by the sentence “And to set the tone for the rest of the speech, where he would make his case for war (to a nation already exhausted from years of war). America had not been in a war since 1918. Although WWII started in 1939, America was not involved and was hardly exhausted from a conflict in which they did not participate. In fact up until a few months before our entry into the war, the US military was pretty stagnant – with enlistment in the armed forces at a low point.