Steven Pinker’s an American experimental psychologist who writes about language, mind and human nature. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he neatly sums up one of the main differences between spoken and written English:
Speaking and writing involve very different kinds of human relationship and only the one associated with speech comes naturally to us. Spoken conversation is instinctive because social interaction is instinctive: we speak to those with whom we are on speaking terms… Writing is above all an act of pretense. We have to visualise ourselves in some kind of conversation, or correspondence, or oration, or soliloquy and put words into the mouth of the little avatar who represents us in this simulated world.
As well as being an act of make-believe, written English (apart from where social media’s involved) is generally:
- made up of sentences put together in complicated ways
- more grammatically correct than spoken English
- more focused than spoken English. Unless it’s a textbook (or Terry Pratchett novel) it usually includes fewer explanations and digressions
And, depending on your medium or platform, when you write something you’re not always guaranteed to get a response from your audience.
Spoken English is:
- informal and conversational. It uses slang and everyday words and phrases
- made up of simple sentences strung together with ands and buts
- full of umms, ahhs, repetitions, tangents and pauses
- a team effort – everyone involved contributes
- When you’re speaking you can use: tone, pauses, intonation, body language, timing, volume, pitch, rhythm and stress. They help you make your meaning as clear as possible
- You can say things that would be crimes against grammar if you wrote them down. You’re also able to correct yourself as you go along
- more often than not, spontaneous
- an immediate, two-way thing. Your audience can interrupt you, ask questions and hecklemake comments
- You can see how your listeners are reacting, then figure out how, or whether to, carry on
So what do these differences mean for speechwriting?
Well, because they’re written to be spoken, speeches are a kind of halfway house between these two types of English.
They’re more formal than spoken English, but often not quite as formal as written English. Their sentences aren’t as complex as in written English, but they’re not as meandering and relaxed as in spoken English either.
In speechwriting, it’s not just about the words you use – the delivery and how it sounds can make or break it. You have to keep this in mind when you’re pulling your speech together.
So, whenever you can, choose short words over long ones because they’re much easier to say and understand.
And show long and winding sentences the red card. If you don’t, you’ll probably lose your listeners 1/2 way through, and it’ll be a slog getting them back on board again.
A lot of crimes against speechwriting happen when you stick to the rules of written English too closely. You can avoid them by reading your speech out loud.
It’s an effective way of checking whether what you’ve written: flows, is stiff or clunky, or has parts that are tricky to say. (Although some sentences are grammatically correct, and look fine when they’re written down, they can sound weird when you say them.)
Reading your speech aloud is also great for catching repetition and the kind of jargon that you’d never say to another human being. It helps make sure that your punctuation gives you time to pause, and take the breaths you need to carry on.
Unlike with written English, you’ve got intonation, body language, volume and pitch in your toolbox. They’re important because they help hold people’s interest. So make sure you vary them.
If you speak in a monotone (like Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher – Bueller? Bueller?) you’re increasing the likelihood that folk are going to zone out, or nod off.
And if your delivery’s machine gun style (like in the old black and white movies) your audience will get confused and give up trying to follow you.
Remembering that you’re going to have to say the words you’re writing should keep you on the right track.
Now go forth and speechify!
Dawn is an ace wordsmith with a background in arts journalism – writing features and book, food, film, TV, theatre and stand-up comedy reviews. She has also written speeches for politicians, and is a skilled business writer who’s drafted and edited content for the Scottish Government’s website.