Guide on the Side – Speaking is from Venus, Writing is from Mars

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

We know that women and men communicate differently. But are we aware that speakers and writers differ even more? 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.

Some Differences

  • Speaking creates an immediate output for audiences to see, hear and share.

  • Writing creates text, an output designed to be read by future readers who do not see or hear the author.

  • Speech syntax is informal, tolerating repairs, false starts, repetitions, start-overs, corrections, non-words and a variety of rhythms and intonations.

  • Writers observe formal rules, striving to be correct in all respects – spelling, grammar, punctuation, choice of words and structure.

Another Difference Illustrated

If I speak the word “hello” to an audience with undulating vocal cadence and ear-centered body language, the audience gets the message that I am asking them to “listen up.” By contrast, if 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 or even who wrote the message, the intended audience or the context. This shows that spoken language has three vocabularies: gestures, vocalisms and words, making speech very economical and persuasive. It is also why:

  • Coaches speak rather than write to motivate their teams.

  • People find it easier to phone than to write a letter.

  • Employees prefer to ask how to do something rather than read instructions.

  • Seeing a play performed is a larger experience than reading the script.

Additionally, speakers connect with their audiences via eye contact and physical bearing. This connection is a integral part of spoken communication, providing speakers with immediate feedback to make course corrections or respond to audience queries on the spot. When a speaker connects with an audience both speaker and audience get a jolt of energy.

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.

What happens when a speech is written in the language of writing?

  • The speaker creates, memorizes and delivers the speech in the argot of writing rather than in the idiom of speech.

  • Delivery is formal and impersonal rather than interactive and personal.

  • Delivery is apt to be rendered in a monotone as if read (Professional speakers and TV anchors can read text and not sound like it but most people can not.)

  • The speech is longer than the audience’s attention span or the time allotted.

  • Content contains more facts and details than can be absorbed by ear

  • The big picture gets lost.

  • Key points are buried under minutia.

  • Speaker develops a severe case of nerves in anticipation of speaking in a language not normally used for speech.

  • Body language and vocal information are omitted

  • Speaker is unprepared to connect with the audience or respond to its feedback.

  • Delivering the speech without notes is difficult because there are so many details to remember.

  • Delivering the speech with notes is difficult also because a thicket of sentences offers few landmarks for the speaker to find his/her place.

Why speech is different than writing

  • Speech and writing involve different parts of the brain according to medical studies of people with aphasia or brain injuries.

  • Speech pre-dates writing in human evolution.

  • Children learn to speak without schooling but require school to learn to write.

  • Research has found that over 90% of spoken messages are conveyed via body gestures and vocalisms and less than 10% by words.

  • Communication can take place with gestures and eye contact alone

  • People can communicate with domestic animals using body and vocal language.

  • Speech is structured as a two-way dialog between the speaker and audience.

  • New words and phrases are added to the vocabulary of speech faster.

  • The audience and the situation are known in speech.

  • The writer and the audience are separated in writing.

When a speaker writes a speech, the thoughts are designed along literary lines into formal sentences and paragraphs using literary parts of speech and constructions. By contrast, dynamic speakers utilize the aspects of verbal communication not available in writing–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. Compare differences – Guide on the Side – A Communication Skill Suite Speaking, Writing and Graphics.

How to Design (Not Write) a Speech

When and how Venus and Mars are in Harmonic Convergence

  • In status reports and briefings, deliver a summary verbally or electronically and distribute related proposals, budgets or reports as handouts.

  • You are asked to speak and provide an article for subsequent publication . Write the article first and then design the speech. This is easier than transcribing the speech later from a recording. Expect the speech to include personal stories, nuances and asides not included in the article . Expect the article to contain greater detail and complexity.

  • Training and continuing education programs require post-instruction reference and resource materials. Write the resource material first and design it as stand alone reference. Prepare the speech later when you have the audience profile and know their focus.

  • When the knowledge level of the audience is mixed, distribute an article or handout. This frees the speaker up to story tell at a level everyone can understand and yet share expertise compiled in the handout.

  • Scientists, academics and others delivering technical papers have a tradition of presenting the papers by reading them verbatim, including all the citations. An option is to distribute the paper in advance and then relate the story behind the paper and its significance.

The main thing to remember when you design a speech (with or without PowerPoint) or training (in the classroom or at a distance) is that audiences pay attention to people who talk to them much more than people who read to them. (Listen up politicians. This is why most people prefer to listen to political commentators rather than you.) 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.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills