“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” (Mark Twain, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain)

Words are the weapons of human thinking. They express fear, despair, hope, and triumph. Yet nothing is worse than the wrong word.


It’s not about the size of vocabulary but the quality of vocabulary. Advertising emphasizes subtle differences. Nude is not the same as naked. Hope is not the same as wish. While most people see them as the same thing but men a
nd women each see them differently.

As Twain noted, (see quote above). Too many times, communicators (whether writers or speakers) reach into their quiver and find a dart when they need an arrow. The right word hits the heart rather than falls to the ground.

How do you keep lightning from fizzling into a lightning bug?

Avoid jargon at all costs. Jargon is a verbal shorthand that is encrusted with the tarnish of overuse. No one knows what “gamification” really means. I have served on educational committees for local schools. You cannot wade through the halls without getting bit by the verbal mosquitoes of “school talk.” No one (and I suspect that means the person using it) know its true meaning. Just don’t use it.

Make the ear an eye. Our visual channel is our most immediate and most powerful. Listen to a recording of an old radio serial program. People would sit glued to the radio, staring at it like it was moving. To them, it was. The words were vivid and easily imagined. If people cannot see what you are saying, you are not saying it well. Make your words paint a picture in the mind’s eye.

Adjust the dial on the spectrum. Most words have degrees. Anger wears many masks including irritation, pique, anger, and rage. Love wraps itself in the mantle of comfort, romance, sensuality, or fondness. Make your words specific. Find the precise emotion you want the reader or listening to feel.

Stay simple. While the 19th century style was full of flourish, “long” words confuse. It was said of Kipling, that at the height of his career, each word he wrote was worth 25 cents. Some young collegians (with more time than talent) wrote Kipling. They included 25 cents and said, “send me one of your best words.” Kipling replied with a simple word, “Thanks.” The simple elegance of the easily understood trumps the intellectual peacock.

How do you develop the ability to use the right word at the right time?

Have good conversations with people who use words well. They may not be as educated but may have a better grasp of how to talk with people.

Read (or listen to) good books. Most good authors speak to the minds and hearts of their readers. Their use of words is their livelihood. Pay attention to what they say, how they say it , and how it affects you. Then, imitate.

Get someone to help you. Too many times authors of written works or speeches fall in love with their own work. They caress it like a newborn baby and protect it from the “cruel world” of the the critic and the confused. It was said of Lincoln he would have his White House maid read his speeches before delivery. He wanted to know what was unclear, misunderstood, and confusing. His best editor was the simple who would listen. Those average listeners are your best editors.

Lightning bugs flit for a short time but lightning transforms the sky. Let your words be lightning rather than lightning bugs.