Skip to main content
Logo image

Sound Writing

Chapter 9 Speaking and Writing

The previous eight chapters have focused on writing and research. While writing and researching are important academic skills, speaking is equally important. Spoken and written arguments are in many ways the same: both articulate positions in an assertive voice, both are organized according to purpose, and both present evidence based on the expectations of an audience. The main difference between spoken and written arguments is not what your ideas are but how you convey them.
Spoken arguments are conveyed in real time; as a student, you know this difference all too well. Consider which of the following scenarios is scarier: (1) You zone out for a couple of paragraphs before you have to respond to a couple of comprehension questions; (2) you’re in lecture and zone out for a few slides, but your professor calls on you to answer a question in class. Of course, the second scenario is scarier! That’s because, whereas you can reread a passage that you missed, it’s difficult to re-consult a lecture occurring in real time. As you prepare oral presentations, keep this difference in mind. Because your audience will not be able to review if they get lost or distracted, it is important to give your listeners some comprehension wiggle room.
List 9.0.1. Strategies for Structuring a Spoken Argument
  • Use simple vocabulary and sentence structure.
    Since your audience won’t be able to re-hear the sentences you speak or look up the words you use in a dictionary, make everyone’s life easier by speaking in accessible language and adopting a conversational tone.
  • Give your presentation a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.
    This structure will not only help to keep your listeners engaged, but it will also give your presentation an audience-friendly, narrative quality.
  • Use pauses and transitions to explain relationships between ideas.
    Pauses act like paragraph breaks—they signal to your audience that you are shifting ideas or advancing in your argument. Transitional statements (such as “The second point to consider is ” and “While is important to consider, even more important is ”) guide your audience through your spoken argument (see Subsection 4.2.3).
  • Use clean, clear, and high-quality visuals.
    Think about how hard it is to follow along in class when a professor lectures without visuals. Help your audience by providing them with interesting visuals that will help them follow as you speak. Just make sure your visuals don’t distract from your message. Also, keep in mind that your visuals are of no use to your audience if they can’t see them. Use images that are large and of sufficient resolution to be seen from any distance.
  • Repeat!
    Since your audience won’t be able to pause and go back over previous material as they would be able to while reading a written argument, it’s important that you provide them this opportunity by reminding your audience of the main parts of your argument and—especially—of parts that may be too complex to grasp at first glance.
  • Be explicit!
    (No, not that kind of explicit!) Explicitly state the connections between the parts of your argument and your thesis. Here, visual cues referring the reader back to relevant parts of your presentation can be helpful.
To illustrate how one might go about transforming a written argument into a spoken one, take a look at these two paragraphs. The first paragraph comes from an student-written academic paper, and the second makes the same argument in language appropriate for an oral presentation. Notice that, though they contain the same information and make the same argument, each paragraph does so differently.

Example 9.0.2. Written Argument.

As a result of the increasing majoritarian agitation within American politics, many states began to reexamine their constitutions in order to better incorporate the desires of the common majority. One issue addressed within this field of political reform was the concept of universal male suffrage. Currently, the vote was extended to adult white males who owned land. Some statesmen wanted to extend suffrage to all adult white males regardless of their economic circumstances. George S. Camp articulated one of the most concise arguments in favor of universal male suffrage in 1841, in his book Democracy. For Camp, the right to vote was a natural right, attributed to men by the right of being human. He states, “All should have an equal voice in the public deliberations of the state, however unequal the point of circumstances, since human rights, by virtue of which alone we are entitled to vote at all, are the attributes of the man, not of his circumstances” (145). This statement neatly summarizes Camp’s belief that the right to vote is a natural human right, irrespective of any economic condition. It also implies that because every man had the right to vote despite their economic circumstances, no class had a greater stake in the government than another. Camp argues, “Property is merely the subject on which rights are exercised . . . We all have our rights, and no man has anything more” (146). For Camp, the economic situation of any human being was an “accident of fortune” and was of “true comparative insignificance” compared with the importance of “real attributes,” or natural rights, such as the right to vote; no man should be kept from exercising his rights because of his lack of economic prosperity.
That paragraph is difficult enough to read! Imagine trying to understand its argument if you could only listen to it. Enter this listener-friendly version (notice that it’s been broken into two smaller chunks).

Example 9.0.3. Spoken Argument.

In nineteenth-century America, only white male landowners could vote. There was considerable political unrest because the majority of people felt that their voices had not been heard, so states began to reexamine their constitutions. One major solution to this problem was universal male suffrage, which in this case meant that all white males could vote, regardless of landownership.
One proponent of universal male suffrage, George S. Camp, argued that the right to vote is a natural human right. Camp insisted that economic circumstances don’t affect a person’s natural right to vote. He called people’s ownership of property an exercise of rights, which means that all people have rights and nothing more. [pause] According to Camp, people in higher classes shouldn’t have a greater stake in government because all that people have are their rights.
In length alone, the spoken version is shorter. By simplifying sentence structure and vocabulary, the spoken version is much more easily understandable. The speaker is patient with their explanations and clarifies things for the audience (“which in this case meant that all white males could vote”). By understanding the limits of aural processing, you can tailor your oral presentation to the needs of your audience and create, in so doing, a more pleasant experience for all.
We have considered some of the differences between spoken and written communication and suggested some strategies to negotiate them. Understanding these differences will help you to take advantage of the real time, face-to-face context of oral communication.
List 9.0.4. Strategies for Delivering a Spoken Argument
  • Prepare ahead of time.
    Even if you consider yourself to be a great improviser, you should begin preparing your presentation at least a couple of days in advance to give yourself time to . . .
  • Practice!
    Practicing your presentation over and over will help you feel more confident and comfortable when the time comes for you to actually present. We know that practicing speeches in college can sometimes be difficult, especially when you don’t want to bother your roommate, but you have plenty of options! Try out a study room in Collins Memorial Library, find an empty lounge in your residence hall, take turns practicing with other people in your class (or with your course assistant), make an appointment at the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching, take your presentation notes on a walk and practice as you go (just watch out for cars and passersby!), or visit your professor during office hours for some feedback. Having a few run-throughs under your belt will make you more comfortable when you actually present.
  • Don’t over-prepare.
    Of course, don’t prepare so much that your presentation becomes all that you think about. It’s important to sleep and take breaks!
  • Don’t read; speak.
    The purpose of a presentation is not to read the audience your paper. Your audience can read. What they can’t do when reading a written paper is engage in face-to-face communication with the writer. Engage your listeners on a personal level by actually talking to them. They’ll be more interested in what you have to say, and you’ll be happy to have been heard. (You might even be able to get away with a couple of jokes in your oral presentation. While we don’t recommend undermining your authority with knock-knock jokes every other slide, a tasteful joke can help to establish rapport between you and your audience.)
  • Make eye contact.
    Although it might seem scary to look directly at your audience, making eye contact will actually make the presentation less awkward! Making eye contact also tells your audience that you reciprocate the attention that they’re giving you.
    Cartoon brown eyes look directly at the reader.
  • Assume good intent.
    Sometimes people in your audience may look like they are not paying attention or like they aren’t enjoying your presentation. While this may be the case, don’t panic if people look less than enthralled. It’s impossible to know why they look the way they do: They may have been sitting there for a long time, or maybe their resting face is not as perky and interested as your own! That said, when you’re in the audience listening to other presentations, make an extra effort to be a good listener and to look interested and alert, even if you’ve been sitting there for a long time.
  • Remember that class presentations are learning experiences.
    Class presentations, as with everything you do in college, are practice. Your classmates are dealing with the same stresses and anxieties as you, and your professor is aware that you are practicing and learning. If it helps, ask your professor if you can use the timer on your phone to keep track of time during your presentation. (But don’t do this if watching the seconds tick by will make you more anxious!)
Just breathe and relax, and it will be all right.
List 9.0.5. Top 5 Differences Between Written and Spoken (or Signed) Language
  1. The obvious difference (excluding the modern inventions of radio, telephones, and television): written language allows people to communicate across time and space, while spoken language happens immediately and is available only for those who can hear it (or see it, in the case of sign languages).
  2. Virtually every human being learns to speak, while literacy is far less common. Today, almost 17% of adults around the world are illiterate.
  3. Because reading and writing are consciously learned behaviors while the ability to speak is acquired naturally, many scientists and linguists think that spoken language is innate and written language is a human construct.
  4. Spoken and signed languages can have varieties and dialects, while written language is generally more regulated and standardized.
  5. Writing and speaking appear to use different parts of the brain.

Differences in Dialectal/Cultural Rules.

Communication extends far beyond the grammatical features used by a speaker or writer. A person’s grammar may be technically correct, but the meaning of their words can provoke anger, laughter, misunderstanding, or outright confusion. Since language revolves around context, knowing the context in which you speak or write is essential to producing culturally appropriate messages. In linguistics, the study of these cultural and contextual language rules is called pragmatics.
Consider this example: You’ve decided to take your six-year-old cousin to the park for a picnic. You notice that a woman nearby is very pregnant. Your cousin also notices the person’s large belly and decides to walk up to her and say, “Wow! You must have eaten a lot of treats!” Although your cousin’s sentence is grammatically correct, they have made the significant English pragmatic mistake of talking about someone’s body and consumption. Maybe your young cousin heard their parent say this same sentence to the robust family dog but has not yet learned that speaking to humans in such a way is inappropriate.
Another example would be one of pragmatic differences between languages: a Caribbean student studying in the United States turns in a narrative and receives a low grade. The teacher’s comments point to the sequence of events within the narrative. However, what the teacher sees as unorganized and illogical is actually a culturally distinct method of storytelling that is different from the standard method (see Subsection 6.3.1) uses.
Here are some more pragmatic facts:
  • Other examples of pragmatic knowledge include knowing how and when to take turns speaking, make eye contact, and ask questions.
  • Other types of pragmatic knowledge include contributing relevant information to a conversation that is not redundant and adjusting the type of language based on the conversational situation.
  • Things like eye contact, head nodding, personal space, and amount of touching are also part of the pragmatics of a language and vary by language and culture.
  • There are three main aspects of communication that are essential to understanding the pragmatic situation of a conversation: 1) the literal meaning of what was spoken (locution), 2) the speaker’s intentions (illocution), and 3) the listener’s interpretation (perlocution).
  • Pragmatics is one major reason why it has been so difficult to program computers to speak and understand language. Try telling a robot to “crack a window,” and see what happens!