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Speaking in Plain Language

Most of our work at the Clear Language Lab focuses on creating clear and effective written communications. Many of the ideas we talk about can also be applied to spoken communication, whether you’re giving a presentation, leading an intake interview, or explaining a process.

Just like in writing, we want to use words that are familiar to our audience, share ideas in a logical order, and use simple, direct sentences. In addition to using plain language, here are some things you can do to make sure your spoken communication is clear and effective for your audience.


A woman is speaking in a board room.

Slow Down

There’s a tendency to misunderstand what it means to speak slowly. Yes, we want to speak at an even, measured pace but exaggeratedly slow speech can be more difficult to process. We understand language best when it follows the patterns we’re used to, so keep a casual tone and natural cadence.


A big part of slowing down is pausing between ideas and after asking questions. Pauses often feel longer than they actually are.


You can try these strategies to make sure you’re not rushing your audience:

  • Exaggerate natural pauses in longer sentences, like where a comma would be in writing, by taking a deep breath

  • When transitioning between sections or big ideas, pause for two or three breaths

  • After asking a question, count to ten in your head before asking a follow-up question or providing the answer

  • If you’re sharing a text heavy slide or document you want your audience to read, ask for a signal from them, like a thumbs ups, when they’re ready to move on


Use Visual Aids

Most people remember information better with visuals. They give our brain something to hold onto and pull up when we’re thinking about that information later.


Visuals don’t just mean pictures. Use slide decks in presentations to highlight key ideas with text and images. If you’re explaining a document, physically point to specific sections as you talk about them. Videos and pictures are great for illustrating processes.


When talking about numbers, especially large numbers and ratios, use visuals that connect to what people already know. Graphs and charts are great, but you can take it a step further by using more concrete images.


The example below is from an exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago. In order to show how extremely tiny something is, they compared its size to the columns of the Lincoln Memorial image on a penny, something almost every American can visualize.



Picture from a museum exhibit showing an enlarged image of a tardigrade, a microscopic species, next to a US penny. There's an arrow pointing to the space between two columns on the Lincoln Memorial image on the penny to show how small they are in real life..
Field Museum. (2023). Death: Life's Greatest Mystery. Chicago, IL.


When trying to choose the right visuals, you can ask yourself:

  • How does this visual support the main idea?

  • Will this visual help my audience connect this idea to what they already know?

  • If my audience saw this visual out of context, would they still be able to connect it to the ideas I’m sharing?


Check for Understanding

Whether your audience is one person or hundreds, checking for understanding helps you know that your message is landing. There are a few ways you can gather this information.



A woman raises her hand during a presentation.


Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions are questions they do not have a yes or no answer. For example, a question I might ask someone reading this post is “What is a strategy for clear spoken communication that you would like to try?”


To answer this question, someone has to recall what they’ve read and apply it to their own life. Open-ended questions help us identify gaps in our explanation or misunderstanding from our audience.


Scenarios

Scenarios are especially helpful when you want to know if your audience can apply the information you’re sharing.


An example for this post would be something like this:

Sonya is observing a new employee present their program orientation. She notices that they’re moving through the information quite fast. What advice could Sonya give this new employee?


Using narratives like this helps your audience synthesize the information you’ve shared. Their responses tell you which points were clear and what you might need to circle back to.

Teach Backs

Asking your audience to “teach back” simply means asking them to explain what you shared in their own words.


Some examples include:

  • I want to make sure I explained this process clearly. What are you going to do before our next meeting?

  • I shared a lot of documents with you today and I want to make sure I was clear about each one. Can you tell me what each document is for?

You can adjust each of these methods for the size of your audience and the setting. For larger groups, you can use multiple choice questions or ask people to share with a neighbor. In a virtual space, you can use quizzes and virtual whiteboards.


The most important part of checking for understanding is making sure your intentions are clear. Tell your audience that you’re not trying to test their knowledge, but that you want to make sure you explained yourself clearly. This small distinction goes a long way in helping people feel comfortable and safe sharing their responses.


A woman is talking on a video call.

In Summary

Like with written communication, planning is always helpful when speaking with your audience. Having a clear idea of what you want to say in advance will help you choose your words intentionally, speak clearly, use appropriate visuals, and ask effective questions.


So take a minute and think about your upcoming presentation or meeting. What do you want to prioritize to make sure your message is clear?


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