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  • Writer's pictureMatt McGarrity

Writing for the ear: 3 tips for successful presentations

“A speech is not an essay on its hind legs.” ---James Winans

Speaking and writing share much in common, but they exist as different media. Speech is aural/oral; writing is visual/tactile. We know this at some level, but many problems with speeches and presentations stem from forgetting these essential differences.

No doubt, you have had to sit through a speaker read directly from their essay. It’s often harder to follow along with. That’s not your fault; writing for the eye and writing for the ear draw on different skills. Most writers aren’t trained as speechwriters and so they might miss some of these features.

Here are a few basic tips to ensure that your writing is also good speechwriting.

1. Use short words.

When writing, we can deliberate over the perfect word choice. When speaking, we don’t have the same amount of time, so we draw from a smaller pool of shorter words. These shorter words are usually more elemental and thus clearer, which is important for listeners processing your talk in real time. Winston Churchill famously said, “Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.”

I spend a lot of time working with rhetorical devices, patterns for sentences and phrases. These devices work reliably because of the rhythm of spoken language. I see these “equations for eloquence.” You take the equation, plug in your variables, and get something that sounds good. The devices often work best when the variable you plug into the equation is a short word.

Here are some examples:

Epistrophe. Repetition at the ends of phrases.

“...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, 1863

Tricolon: Three parallel phrases of the same length in a series.

"It is a privilege to share the evening with all of them and also with the incredible men and women who have inspired me, who challenged me, who sustained me and made my journey to this stage possible." Oprah Winfrey, Golden Globes, 2018

Antimetabole: An ABBA phrase pattern for antithesis.

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961

You can do big eloquence with small words.

Don’t get me wrong. I love me a good polysyllabic word. I’ll break windows just to talk about the mysterious defenestration that’s occurring in the building. Writing for the ear lives in the realm of daily speech, and that’s often short words.

2. Stick to short sentences with basic punctuation.

The filmmaker Eric Olson had the great sentence when talking about oral style, “get to verb early.” I completely agree. There are certainly times when you want to postpone the verb, but for the most part, get to a nice vivid verb as soon as possible. This usually translates to writing in active instead of passive voice.

Let’s say you’re doing a talk at a graduation. Which is better?

1. Transitioning is one the important things we do when we graduate.

2. Graduation marks an important transition.

Probably the later. It’s a short, simple sentence. We know immediately what the phrase is going to be about (graduating) because its first. That provides context, making decoding the rest of the phrase easier.

Dependent clauses can work well in writing because they are visually marked. For example, take a look at this sentence:

“Alice, whom I met when I started at the company, was helpful to me immediately.”

Not bad, but its unnecessarily formal and clunky when delivered. As a listener, I’m hanging around to get to the necessary information (“helpful”). Drop that dependent clause and break it into two nice simple sentences:

“I met Alice when I started at the company. She helped me immediately.”

This also highlights how we might pull in conversational voice. You’re not writing a legal document with the “party of the first part.” Use pronouns.

3. Write out loud to build your manuscript

Peggy Noonan, the lead writer on Ronald Reagan Challenger speech, provided a great piece of advice in her book On Speaking Well. “Where you falter, alter.”

Use your practice sessions as a way of writing and refining the text. Having a rough time getting through part of your draft? Change it! Just because you wrote something down earlier, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Speak while you write. It’ll save you time and help you find some good phrasing.

I like going through my drafts and breaking everything up into the delivery units, chunks of talk within the presentation. These end up looking more like what a producer might load into a television teleprompter for the on-air talent to read.

I think people often look at the resulting draft, with all the short swords and sentences and think, “Ugh. I’m going to sound dumb and basic.” Not at all. A novel and its resulting screenplay look different, right? Same thing for your original draft and its resulting speech manuscript. You’re translating your written thoughts into the oral medium. Your audience will thank you.

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