Writers and Speakers use the same basic building blocks for their craft … but often they use them differently.

Unfortunately when we first start out on our speaker’s pathway we sometimes forget that fact, and we sit and carefully craft our words to create the utmost effect – and yet when we stand up to speak them something happens in the translation. The beautiful words that we searched out leave our audience cold; the meticulous word pictures, honed within an inch of their meaning, fail to spring into life; in short we are a disaster and our audience are utterly unmoved by our dissertation.

Did you understand that last paragraph? Now try reading it aloud and hear the difference. The words that we form in our heads need not conform to the KISS principle (Keep it simple stupid), but the words that we speak… ah! that is a different matter altogether.

In the second paragraph my words are unnecessarily verbose, the sentence structure is a little clumsy, and the words are not the simplest I could use to get the message across. It reads fine, but it speaks without the fluidity of true speech.

When we sit to write our ideas down, we often forget that we speak much differently than we write, and if we rely on written notes to the extent that we read them rather than speak them, we can sound insincere, stilted and false. None of which puts our audience in a good frame of mind to receive our thoughts, even if they can actually discern them from the convoluted verbiage. (Now that reads fine, but try it aloud ….)

Winston Churchill knew a thing or two about public speaking, and his advice to “use short, homely words of common usage” is still valid today. But even here we can face a problem; what are considered to be the ‘short homely words of common usage’ today can depend on where you are speaking.

There will be vastly differing ideas about that if you ask university professors or master builders. Age differences will create ‘chasms of misunderstandings’, as will audience gender. The simple solution is to know your audience and that means asking questions. I am still astounded at the number of speakers who turn up at the venue with no real idea of who they are talking to. They probably have asked the “How many” question but not the “What kind”.

We need to know the make up of our audience so that we can tailor our words and our concepts to be acceptable and credible to these people. While those of us with a passing knowledge of both World War 2 and the Vietnam War have our own set of little prejudices; these are merely historical events to most teenagers and the values that these events taught those that lived through them may not be reflected in the younger generations.

I was appalled to read on the BBC website that they are hosting a discussion on whether fighting the Second World War was actually in Britain’s interests. And also under question is the leadership of Winston Churchill during that war. To someone who lived in the immediate aftermath of that war and who lost their father in the D Day landings, such discussion is disgustingly revisionistic – but the younger generation find it a valid cause for historical discussion.

We too, need to be aware that our audience may not immediately connect with our underlying assumptions and so we need to spell them out simply and understandably; and that needs the easiest and simplest language possible to avoid confusion and to win support for our ideas.

A simple example of how written and spoken language differs will served to demonstrate my point. Consider this:

“Is this a genuine affirmation that the utterances that you anticipate communicating during the time period immediately succeeding the present shall be entirely veracious and devoid of deception, complete in all pertinent minutiae and particularities, and absent of all misleading obfuscation or superfluous and undocumentable speciticities, on the authority of your allegiance and fidelity to the supreme deity?”(1)

Now, if you sit quietly and ponder over that, you might be able to dig out the meaning underneath all the ‘verbiage’ – but isn’t it a good thing that if we should find ourselves in a place where this question is put it is done so this way:

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

Technically both passages mean the same, but the second one goes straight to the heart of the matter, is unambiguous and perfectly understandable.

So if we are struggling over a written presentation, it might be best to list the ideas and talk them out until we can find the words that express precisely what we mean to say in a spoken manner and then record those.

I always try to speak before I write my presentations down, and then I only write out the ideas in the order that I want to cover them. This gives me a ‘spoken’ voice for my presentation or speech, and it allows me the flexibility to change if necessary when I take it to differing audiences.

So, at the basis of both spoken and written communication are words. To become effective spoken communicators we need to heed the old military adage “Keep it simple stupid!”


(1) Taken from The Art of Public Speaking by Stephen E. Lucas published by McGraw-Hill USA, in 1983; page 244.

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