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 into a strong judgment call.
And 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.
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 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
Here are five very important things to consider when evaluating proper word choice.
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.
And if you say “utilize” incorrectly (which honestly unless you work in a lab you probably are) be scared. This one is a BIG peeve of mine. I’ll take you down. Fair warning.
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, matter.
If a word makes our prospect feel or perceive our message a certain way—one we don’t intend—we shouldn’t use it.
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.
Why do you think we are naturally drawn to poetry and writers like Shakespeare so much?
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.”
One thing I hope all communicators are paying close attention to as we all learn how to be better allies for racial justice is how certain words or phrases bring with them a racial history many of us don’t even realize.
Here’s a good list to start from Babbel (I know I use some of these).
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 sentences can be until we hear them used magnificently over and over and over again. Bonus points if you read books from authors of different races, cultures, and geographies.
- 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: The thesaurus is always an open tab on my computer. 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.
Need More Word Choice Tips?
This post will give some tactical tips to improve your word choice overall.
How to Improve Your Word Choice (And Why Every Communicator Should)
And this post will help you remove filler words.
Remove These Filler Words to Improve the Success of Your Content
And this post on why some filler words are necessary.
Words are one of the most powerful tools we have. Use them wisely.