The challenges of speaking: sequence and finding the right word

Aha yes, the search for the right word. It always seems to be just out of reach, resulting in oh so charming mumblings like “It’s the…, I mean the…, wait, I know the word, it’s…”. Sound familiar?

We all forget names or words. But ever since this new life I’ve gotten really self-conscious about this. Cause I know that it has gotten a lot more frequent than before. Not only trying to remember certain words, also putting them in the right sequence has proven to be quite challenging. I’m now a frequent user of the “but in the correct order” remark at the end of most of my sentences.

New reality

The funny thing is, that I never have these kind of troubles with my thoughts. So I always feel, and expect to be, ready to answer questions in fluent sentences. Nevertheless when someone asks me a(n unexpected) question I catch myself stumbling through the answer. Especially when I haven’t used a certain word in a while, at the end of the day or when I’m tired. Than it all becomes a lot harder. I’ll put the words in the wrong order and I’ll feel like my pauses are longer than the saying of actual words. In those moments I’m painfully aware that something has changed.

When I’m at loss for a particular word, it’s like there is an opaque screen in my mind blocking my vocabulary. I can often ‘see’ the length of the word or even the starting sound or letter, but not the entire word.

What helps

Over time I’ve found some tricks to help. When I do know similar words either in meaning or in sound, I’ll it turn into a “find the word it resembles-quiz”. Other time my brain comes up with creative descriptions and the conversation will resemble a ‘forbidden word’-game. I remember using the following descriptions, which are quite creative (if I may say so myself): “a little vertical wall that stops the rain” (answer:  an overhang), “the control mechanism for running water” (answer: the tap).

Of course this is all fine with friends, but not always a viable option in work situations. For more serious conversations, I’ve discovered the value of practising beforehand. If I have a very important conversation, meeting or have to give a presentation, I practise it out loud. That way I’ve used all the words I plan on using, have practised putting them in the right order and can even write some key phrases down.

This week, I even realised that writing this blog also helps. I found myself citing a previous written paragraph in answer to a question. I didn’t even had to use the “ but in the right order” remark. Making it a small personal victory! I think that was one of the longest unexpected answers I have given, without messing it up. Apparently rewriting and restructuring blog posts are also a perfect way to practise and even retain information. So now I’ll just have to write a lot more and keep practising answers to unexpected questions and I’ll be good as new. Just kidding 😉.

Lessons to learn

When it’s getting really bad and I seem to be completely out of words, I know it’s time to call it a day. Which provides another perfect opportunity to practise being true to one’s self. To learn to stand up for yourself, to halt a meeting or appointment and to excuse yourself from the situation so you can take a break.

Well, in the ideal situation of course. I have to say I never was as conscious of all the opportunities during the day where I can improve myself. All the different times at which you can make decisions in order to preserve your energy. I do feel a bit ambiguous about this. On the one hand I’m glad that there are a lot of opportunities to try and do better, but on the other hand decision making in itself can be quite wearisome…. Honestly, some days I just get tired of being an adult and making decisions, but well who doesn’t. (I’ll assume it’s not just me at least 😉). And I have gotten off topic again.

Reaction of others

Broadly speaking, I’ve noticed two different reactions to my stumbling along. People will either patiently wait for you to finish your sentence, or will try to help by (repeatedly) suggesting words. However, I’ll get even more flustered and stressed when people are trying to help, as they often guess the wrong word. Which isn’t really beneficial for my speaking speed. I know they mean well, but if I get really stuck I will ask for help or turn it into a guessing game. So if you meet me on the street, try to be patient with me. You’ll even give me a chance to practise making the right decision and ask for help or a pause when needed.

How are your experiences on the matter? Has this gotten better over the years or does it largely depend on you energy level? Do you remember creative descriptions you’ve used when you forgot certain words?

2 Replies to “The challenges of speaking: sequence and finding the right word”

  1. My experiences are virtually identical: they are all based on my cognitive account budget. When the account is at 100% I am clear and articulate. At 75% I can get the point across but it isn’t presentation quality. At 60% it starts to get rocky. From there it starts with what you describe: you know the words but you can’t get them out so you start “connecting” the dots (eg faucet) and I love your examples. I do the same thing resulting in these over-precise and accurate and understandable yet baffling-to-others answers, but hey, it works.

    When my budget starts getting really low I start using the wrong words and I don’t notice it. For example I want to say “775 dollars” but instead I say “175 dollars” (see how the 7 and the 1 sort of kind of look the same in a particular font?) or I want to say “motorcycle” but instead I say “skateboard” (both are fun) and then people say “Oh don’t you mean…?”. I say “Oh yea, right…” and then I get disappointed that I let it happen (due to the cognitive account budget running so low), oh woe is me though hahaha. If I let the budget run too low it will happen so I plan around it. My budget gets run down when any of these three rules are broken: Predictability, Familiarity and Safety.

    Examples follow. Predictability: I give a presentation and it is pretty easy but half-way in the owners rushes in to the boardroom and we need to handle a crisis. Familiarity: I want to go to my hometown so I take the same flight but when I get to the terminal they cancel and reschedule it to another time on the other side of the airport and I have to go through security again and might not make the flight. Security: normally the taxi to the airport works great but today the driver just had a fight with his girlfriend and he is driving crazy and shouting. My big budget drainers are those things. The other drainers are the easy ones that we all know about: lights, sound, normal stress, diet, didn’t sleep well… you name it.

    We have coping strategies that work so kudos to us!

    If you enjoy honing your writing style read _On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction_ by William Zinsser. Only read it if you are ready to never look at writing the same way again and in fact feel little guilty about sending emails or leaving replies that haven’t gone through at least three revisions (like this). You will probably love the book though.

    1. I found the three rules that determine your cognitive budget, very insightful! And thank you for giving the examples, which helped 🙂 I seems like a very helpful categorization to help getting a handle on your cognitive abilities! I’m going to try and see if this helps me predicting and managing my budget. Thanks for sharing :).

      I discovered that book on my Kindle. I already meant to read it, but had (obviously) forgotten, thanks for reminding me. I’ll definitely read it!

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