Chapter 7: Language

The Power of Language

At times such language is used purposely by some members of our society to trigger emotions such as fear, hurt, or outrage. This type of hurtful language sometimes results in chaos, and is often referred to as “fighting words. ” According to the “What is the Fighting Words Doctrine, ” the fighting words doctrine originated in a landmark court case in 1942. The ruling defined fighting words as “words which are likely to incite an immediate fight and words which inflict injury. ” While subsequent court cases have amended the original doctrine somewhat, the intent is clear. There are some words some language that incite anger, hate, and, at times, violence. For our purposes, we will refer to this as inflammatory language .

Powerful language is not offensive language. You should certainly strive to use vivid and persuasive language as you speak to an audience. One of your goals as a public speaker is to use emotion to create passion in your listeners or to reach them in such a way that they will be moved to act. Yet you should never knowingly use language that demeans or offends or hurts. The use of profanity is one example. While you may not view profanity as anything more than words, many of your audience members might be shocked or angered if you included profanity in your speech. It is impossible to know which swear words might be accepted and which might not, so as a general rule, we would caution you against the inclusion of any profanity in your speeches. As public speakers, we need to be mindful of the power we hold when we speak. Speaking to accomplish your purpose must also be balanced with an understanding of the responsibility that you have to your audience and to society as a whole.

Keep in mind that even if you are careful to avoid inflammatory or derogatory language, you may inadvertently trigger an emotional response from your audience without intending to do so. Unless you are privy to all of the experiences, fears, and stresses of every listener’s life, it is impossible to know what meanings your listeners may have attached to certain words or if your listeners have had a personal experience that will be triggered by your use of a particular word, example, or detail. Let’s say that you begin a presentation with a recent news story about an elderly man who was attacked in his home. This story might provide an effective attention-getter that lends itself directly to your topic of “Safety in the Home. ” You are shocked when one of the listeners in your audience leaves the room crying. You later learn that this listener’s grandfather was recently attacked as well. While this is an unfortunate incident remember we do not ever want to inflict hurt or pain intentionally there was no way you could know that this example would create such turmoil for at least one listener in your audience.


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