Design Your Speech Not Write It

by Speaking Tips | December 1, 2003

Speaking and writing are distinctive versions of the same language, unique in their output, syntax and function. Presenters and trainers need to appreciate the differences to know when to speak, to write or to use both in tandem.

For example, speaking creates an immediate output for audiences to see, hear and share. Speech syntax is informal, tolerating repairs, false starts, repetitions, start-overs, corrections, non-words and a variety of rhythms and intonations. Bt contrast, writing creates text, an output designed to be read by future readers who do not see or hear the author. Writers observe formal rules, striving to be correct in all respects - spelling, grammar, punctuation, choice of words and structure.

Another Difference Illustrated

Spoken language has three vocabularies: gestures, vocalisms and words, making speech very economical and persuasive. If I speak the word "hello" to an audience with undulating vocal cadence while cupping my ears, the audience gets the message that I am asking them to pay attention. If, on the other hand, I write "hello" on a page without additional explanatory text, readers do not know whether the message is a greeting, commentary, inquiry, attention getting device. They do not know who wrote the message, the intended audience or the context.

Additionally, speakers connect with their audiences via eye contact and physical bearing. This connection is an integral part of spoken communication, providing speakers with immediate feedback enabling them to make course corrections or respond to audience queries on the spot.

The effectiveness of speech as a mode of communication helps explains many common situations such as why people find it easier to phone a loved one than to write a letter and why employees prefer to ask how to do something rather than to read the manual.

Writing has a different set of strengths and is often epitomized as the language of information. It depends on choice of words, word order, sentence structures, punctuation, grammar, paragraphs, fonts, format, page layout as well as selection of channel (book, article, memo, minutes, report). It is permanent, detailed, precise and structured for re-use and understanding. Writing transcends time and space. Contracts, wills, legislative and other legal documents are in writing because of these attributes.

Design (Not Write) Your Speech

When a speaker writes a speech, the thoughts are organized along literary lines into formal sentences and paragraphs using literary parts of speech and constructions. Frequently, this results in the big picture getting lost as key points are buried under minutia and flowery (or formal as the case may be) language. If a speaker creates and memorizes their speech in the argot of writing rather than in the idiom of speech it is almost certain that body language and vocal information will be omitted during delivery which is likely to be formal and impersonal rather than interactive and personal. In the worst case, delivery may be rendered in a monotone as if read.

Instead, you should first capture, organize and prioritize your ideas. Post-it notes can be great for doing this. Speak the first drafts into a recorder and then outline the main ideas. Devise notes that look like a map so you can remember the speech as a picture. Use color and graphics in your notes for easier prompting reference. Ensure that you design gestures, voice, props and graphic elements into the speech.

Dynamic speakers utilize the aspects of verbal communication not available in writing such as gestures, vocalisms and audience feedback. Speech is filled with shrugs, postures, finger pointing, sighs, inflections, accents, pauses, alliterations and other sounds for which there are no written equivalents.

The main thing to remember when you design a speech or training is that audiences pay attention to people who talk to them much more than people who read to them. If you aim to persuade or motivate an audience, do it in person in the language of speech. If you strive to share knowledge for posterity, put it in writing in the language of text.

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