Zipf’s law

In some older posts on this blog, I have written about Moore’s law, Metcalfe’s law, Fubini’s law, Occam’s law and Murphy’s law. Maybe you still remember what they are all about.

Today, I want to introduce you to yet another law, which is called Zipf’s law, a.k.a. the Brevity law.

The American linguist, George Kingsley Zipf, formulated this law in 1945. It states that the more frequently a word is used, the shorter that word tends to be, and vice versa. Such negative correlation between the frequency of words and their size can be found in almost any natural languages. Zipf also called it a ‘principle of least effort.’ As humans tend to be inherently lazy (or more positively said, they try to be energy efficient) they prefer to take the path of least effort or resistance. Whatever (English) text you analyse, you will always get the same top-5 of short words and their associated frequencies: the (about 6.5%), of (2.8%), to (2.6%), a (2.4%) and and (2.3%).

Some of the shortest words that public speakers often use, however, won’t show up in these statistics: the innumerable uh’s, um’s and er’s. I recently had a video recorded of one of my presentations, and when I replayed it afterwards, I was embarrassed to hear myself saying these nasty filler words. I really thought I had eliminated them from my professional vocabulary…

In another blog post, I wrote about hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, or fear of long words. Well, this time I felt more like a micrologophobia patient. But there’s some good news: like most phobias there are some cures for the latter one too…

  • Listen to yourself: this is something I hate doing, but it’s an important first step in acknowledging your bad habits and ridding yourself of those ugly words;
  • Slow down: if your mouth moves faster than your brain, you’re going to stumble a lot;
  • Punctuate: imagine periods and commas in your speech while you’re talking;
  • Pause: some speakers use fillers to avoid silent gaps, though silence may be much more powerful (read also my “P+R” post)
  • Transition: try using transition statements like “let’s now talk about…”, “on the next slide you’ll see…” or even “and now for something completely different…”;
  • Make eye contact: when you’re making eye contact with one or more persons in your audience, it will become much more awkward to say um or uh to them;
  • Be self-confident: when you spend too much time worrying about your words, you’re going to lose the focus of your presentation and… become even more muddled;
  • Practice: practice your presentation as often as possible before you give it. The better you know your narrative, the more confident you’ll be and the less you’ll stumble.

And if you still let an um or an er slip out from time to time, just think of them as a natural part of speaking. Most of the time, your audience won’t even notice. Maybe these short words should have been included in Zipf’s law after all.