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Speaking and Writing: Essentially the Same and Importantly Different

Ubiquity, Volume 2024 Issue February, February 2024 | BY Philip Yaffe

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Volume 2024, Number February (2024), Pages 1-10

Communication Corner: Speaking and Writing: Essentially the Same and Importantly Different
Philip Yaffe
DOI: 10.1145/3649326

Each "Communication Corner" essay is self-contained; however, they build on each other. For best results, before reading this essay and doing the exercise, go to the first essay "How an Ugly Duckling Became a Swan," then read each succeeding essay.

If you have been following these Communication Corner essays, you have read the above paragraph many, many times. However, this essay will be radically different because is not self-contained; rather it is the summation of everything that has gone before. Every effort has been made to make each section self-contained. Where this was not possible, links to previous Communication Corner essays have been included.

It should come as no surprise that if you write better, you will also speak better. This is because the fundamental principles of good writing are identical to those of good speaking. Nevertheless, writing and speaking are distinct disciplines. Thus, while the fundamental principles are the same, how to effectively apply them must be closely examined.

How Writing and Speaking Are Alike

(Essential attitude) When you sit down to write an expository (non-fiction) text or prepare an expository (non-fiction) speech, you need to undertake the task with the proper attitude.

  • Writing attitude. No one wants to read what you are going to write (because they don't expect it to be entertaining).
  • Speaking attitude. No one wants to hear what you are going to say (because they don't expect it to be entertaining).

While less true for speaking than for writing (as will be detailed below), in both cases your primary task, before anything else, is to give your readers and listeners reasons why they should be interested in the information you are about to give them.

(Essential approach) How do you overcome this somber barrier? By adopting the appropriate approach.

  • Writing approach. Organize information to generate interest.
  • Speaking approach. Organize information to generate interest.

Speaking in public obviously requires a different degree of mastery of the language than does writing. Nevertheless, the essential approach is identical. You must pique your audience's interest, i.e., as quickly as possible let them know how they will benefit from reading what you have written or listening to what you are saying.

(Fundamentals) For both writing and speaking, it is of course necessary to be:

  • Clear, effectively use the three elements of clarity (defined below)
  • Concise, effectively use the two elements of conciseness (defined below)
  • Dense, effectively use the two elements of density (defined below)

You should also make full use of the inverted pyramid, i.e. a clear, concise, dense lead as well as the Q & A technique to develop the body of each section of your text or presentation.

How Writing and Speaking Are Different

The differences between writing and speaking are rather subtle. They arise from the fact that readers and listeners have somewhat different mindsets.

  • Writing. No one wants to read what you are going to write

It is safe to assume that when readers pick up an expository text, their initial attention is rather low. Since they probably do not want to read it, they are not fully concentrated on the task at hand.

  • Speaking. No one wants to hear what you are going to say

Although listeners may not want to hear what you are going to say, they nevertheless have made the effort to come together with you. Thus, for at least the first couple of minutes, they are likely to be totally focused on your presentation. Make good use of this initial high attention because it is fragile and can rapidly dissipate.

(Fundamentals) There is no difference between writing and speaking with regard to "clarity." However, there are slight but important differences with regard to "conciseness" and "density."

Remember, clarity means:

  • Emphasize what is of key importance
  • De-emphasize what is of secondary importance
  • Eliminate what is of no importance

Whether you are writing or speaking, clarity is imperative. Indeed, there is nothing more important.

Remember, conciseness means:

  • Long as necessary
  • Short as possible

Long as necessary. Whether you are writing or speaking, you must still be as long as necessary to get your message across. Whatever your time constraint, it makes no sense to leave out important information necessary for clarity. The inevitable result is that either you will confuse your listeners or leave them dissatisfied. One way or another, you must be certain that you include in your presentation everything that is needed to make it clear.

So, what do you do when time is limited?

Ideally, you should seek more time. If the need for additional time is properly explained to the person in charge, it may very well be granted. If not, the following could help:

  • Never cut out anything of key importance.
      If key ideas are sacrificed, you might as well not give the presentation at all.
  • Reduce things of secondary importance.
      You might think that you need about 30 seconds to relate a piece of secondary information, but on reflection you may find that you could do an adequate job in 20 seconds or perhaps even less.
  • Eliminate some things of secondary importance. Suggesting this is not sacrilege.
    • If you have three pieces of secondary information to support a key idea, using only two of them could be just as effective. Eliminating one of them could save precious time.
    • Carefully review your material. Certain pieces of information you have already decided to use may in fact be borderline, i.e. your judgment about whether a piece of information is of secondary importance or of no importance could have gone either way. If you have any doubts, eliminate it.

As short as possible. In writing, we have seen that any words beyond the minimum needed to be "as long as necessary" damage clarity. We have also seen that expository writing should give information to readers as rapidly as possible to excite and maintain their interest.

In speaking, listeners are not in such a hurry. They may not like to admit it, but in addition to being informed, they also want to be entertained. To be fully effective, oral presentations must be both expository and creative. This is why a pleasant voice, good eye contact, and appropriate body language (i.e. anything that makes the presentation a more agreeable experience) are useful to oral success. But let's not exaggerate their influence.

The single most important thing you need in order to be a successful speaker is enthusiasm.

Passion for one's subject is infectious; listeners respond. If you make it clear that you are deeply committed to what you are saying, all the behavioral aspects of an oral presentation, however useful, will fade into the background.

Remember, density means:

  • Precise information
  • Logically linked

Precise information is crucially important in both writing and speaking, and for the same reasons:

  • Listener confidence. The more you seem to know about your subject, the more listeners will want to hear what you have to say. Using precise information generates this confidence and interest.
  • Mind control. Precise information does not allow unpredictable interpretations. Therefore, the more precise information you use, the more firmly you control the listeners' minds, i.e., direct their attention where you want it to go rather than wandering off wherever the listener's imagination takes it.

But be careful. However, much they resemble each other, reading precise information and listening to precise information are fundamentally different. A reader can stop and think about a piece of information if they find it of special interest or skip over it if they find it of no interest.

A listener can do neither because it is the speaker who controls the situation. When something in a presentation particularly arouses a listener's interest, it is the speaker who decides how much time will be spent on it. When a listener finds some part of the presentation dull and off-putting, there is no escape. They can only sit through it, waiting for the speaker to move on to something more palatable.

How do you handle these important differences between writing and speaking? Here are three suggestions.

1. Prepare the listeners.

Before giving listeners a block of precise information, data, statistics, etc., tell them why you are going to do so. In other words:

  • First make a general statement.
  • Then give the precise information needed to support it. In short, create "oral bullet points."

2. Limit the amount of precise information.

Unlike readers, listeners cannot take hold of a piece of information and examine it. First it is there, then it is gone. Listeners will therefore more easily accept the validity of a general statement with less supporting information than they might demand in a text. Indeed, giving too much supporting information during an oral presentation can become tedious, and therefore counterproductive.

3. Ensure that related information is logically linked.

In writing, failure to make logical links clear is a serious fault; in speaking, it is close to a sin. The speaker has total control. If logical links are not instantaneously apparent, listeners have absolutely no possibility of making these vital connections themselves.

As in writing, the best way to ensure logical linkage is by putting related information as close together as possible, reinforced by a linking transition such as "Information A naturally implies Information B because… ."

If it is not possible to place them one immediately after the other, when the second element does appear, use a linking transition to alert listeners to their relationship.

Example: "A few moments ago we looked at Information A. It should now be no surprise that Information B is a necessary consequence of Information A… ."

Listener Attention

As noted previously, it is reasonable to assume high initial listener attention at the beginning of an oral presentation, but we must not allow this advantage to dissipate. To profit from this advantage, we must make a fundamental distinction between how readers behave and how listeners behave.

When you sit down to read a text, chances are you try to isolate yourself from noise and other distractions. If someone interrupts you, you might ask them to come back later when you have finished what you are doing. In large measure, readers control their reading environment.

Listeners have no control over their environment. If someone nearby starts making comments, listeners could be distracted. If someone starts coughing, listeners could be distracted. If someone enters the room, listeners could be distracted. If someone leaves the room, listeners could be distracted. And so on.

Each time listeners are distracted, you as the speaker lose some precious attention. What can you do to prevent this from happening?

Exercise your control.

You may not be able to eliminate distractions, but you do have it in your power to significantly reduce them.

The first thing is to rivet the listeners' attention on what you are saying by being certain that it is clear, concise, and dense. If each listener can easily understand and appreciate the importance of your words, distractions will be less intrusive.

The second thing is to support your presentation with well-designed visual aids. Attention goes where the eye goes. A well-conceived series of slides or other visual aids can do wonders to diminish the power of distractions.

Finally, you can ask questions. In my courses and presentations, I always designate key moments to engage listeners by challenging them in this way. For example:

  • First, I define the appropriate attitude for a creative writer as, "Everyone wants to read what I am going to write (because they expect it to be entertaining)." Then I ask what would be the appropriate attitude for an expository writer. A few timid volunteers usually offer their opinions, and usually one of them finally answers, "No one wants to read what I am going to write." If not, I give them the answer and then explain it.
  • Another good moment to ask a question occurs during the definition of clarity. I give the listeners the first two elements (emphasize what is of key importance, de-emphasize what is of secondary importance). I then ask, "What do you suppose the third element would be?" Someone almost always gives the correct answer: "Eliminate what is of no importance."

Asking questions not only helps maintain listener attention, but it also memorably impresses key ideas on the listeners—a significant advantage.

How to Effectively Use Body Language

You will frequently hear people say that effective public speaking depends up to 93 percent on body language and only 7 percent on words.

This contention must not go unchallenged. In fact, it is nonsense.

If your objective is to convey important information and ideas, or to convince people to consider and adopt your point of view, words are crucial. No matter how effective your eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, etc., if people can't easily understand and assimilate what you are saying, your effort is useless.

This can easily be demonstrated. How many great orators of the early- to mid-20th century moved audiences—and indeed changed the course of history—via radio, where body language was not an option?

So where did this pernicious myth come from? Well, actually it is based on serious scientific research. Unfortunately, like much scientific research, careless interpreters have distorted it beyond recognition.

The source of this distortion are studies carried out in the 1960s by Prof. Albert Mehrabian at UCLA. In essence, Prof. Mehrabian said that effective spoken communication consists of three elements:

  • 7 percent on the meaning of the words that are spoken
  • 38 percent on para-linguistics, i.e., the way that the words are spoken
  • 55 percent on facial expression

But note, he was talking about informal spoken communication, i.e., the sort you might engage in at a social gathering (dinner party, after-work drink, etc.). Or on a somewhat more formal occasion such as a job interview, where you are trying to impress people by who you are totally, not your specific words. Also note Prof. Mehrabian does not use the term "body language." Instead, he talks about "facial expression" which, along with eye contact, body movement, hand gestures, etc., is only one aspect of body language.

In short, Prof. Mehrabian's valid research in one area of spoken communication has been grafted onto public speaking, often with unwanted results.

For example, some speakers regularly pace back and forth in front of an audience because they believe movement attracts and holds their attention. Indeed, it does. However, when movement is mechanical and as predictable as a metronome, it has exactly the opposite effect. Likewise, speakers who mechanically wave their hands around or constantly shift their weight from one foot to the other are making the same mistake.

The true purpose of body language is not to focus attention on the speaker, but on what he or she is saying. Movements that take on a life of their own are counterproductive.

So, what should be the proportion between words and movement in a successful oral presentation? This question has no answer because it makes no sense. It all depends on what the speaker is saying and what kind of response they are seeking to elicit.

Perhaps the best overall advice on the subject comes from Toastmasters International. Founded in California in 1924, Toastmasters is a worldwide club (not a school) devoted to improving public speaking. In their manual for members (some 280,000 in more than 80 countries), they say:

"Body language should look natural and unrehearsed, and be consistent with the words being spoken. Using body language that is comfortable for you and enjoyable for your audience takes thought and practice."

In short, body language should complement and reinforce your words, never overpower them.


I am strongly enamored of clear, crisp quotations. So, allow me to sum up this essay with two of my favorite ones with regard to communication, either written or spoken, The sources of these quotations are well-known authors, lauded mainly for their fiction but who were also exceptional writers of essays and other forms of expository prose.

"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been achieved."—Oscar Wilde.

Note: For the sake of "density", it must be mentioned that the authenticity of this quotation is in doubt. But whoever might have said it, the wisdom of its content is beyond doubt.

"Do not write merely to be understood. Write so you cannot possibly be misunderstood."—Robert Louis Stevenson


Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA's daily student newspaper. He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. He is the author of more than 30 books, which can be found easily in Amazon Kindle.

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