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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Spoken Language is Not Written Language.

Spoken language has two other important differences from written language. Firstly, speaking uses much repetition. The typical way of explaining, amplifying, and exploring a point is to add an extra phrase in a sort of phonological bracket. By dropping or raising the voice, it is made clear to the listener that the information is a sort of sideline, or footnote, which is meant to clarify what is being said, rather than introduce a new point. Speakers also tend to restart sentences in different ways, trying to get across what they mean by different routes, and when they feel the point is clear, not bothering to complete or tidy up what they have started to say. There is also much trying out of different words, and rhetorical repetition for emphasis. All these features contribute to the muscular, flexible, and alert feeling of spoken language. It is like a living contact with the mind of the speaker, whereas written language is a fossil record of his or her thoughts.

The second way in which spoken language differs from written language is that the choice of vocabulary is very different. Written vocabulary is formal, and explicit. Spoken vocabulary tends to be familiar, and everyday. Indeed, it is usually possible to get someone to simplify and clarify a tortuous written sentence by asking him to look away from the page, and say what he means. A writer who has solemnly written: ‘Tests were conducted on the loader to ascertain the maximum failure capacity’, when asked what he meant, would say something like: ‘We loaded it up until the cable broke’; a simpler, and clearer, way of explaining a technical point.

Writers, then, use formal grammar, single expressions, and elaborate, abstract vocabulary: speakers use intonation, repeat things until they are clear, and use everyday words. There are great differences between spoken and written language, and when written language is read out, it is less effective. I am not suggesting that there is a difference of worth, between written and spoken language. They are simply used for different purposes; one is to communicate face to face, the other communicates remotely. Misusing the difference is one cause of boring presentations. It you read out written language, your voice will naturally lack intonation. The structure of what you say will be over formal, and the vocabulary will be too abstract. This is why listening to written papers being read out is so difficult. The listener gets no sense of contact with the speaker’s mind—there seems to be a wall of fog between the living mind of the speaker, and the listener.

Written language often sounds false and clumsy when it is read out, and what I have said in the last few paragraphs should explain why. The added problem is that many people are poor readers; their reading voices are stumbling and monotonous. It is possible to read written text in an interesting way—actors do it constantly—but it requires great skill. It is certainly not to be recommended as a way of giving a technical or informative presentation.

Another disadvantage of reading is that the presenter loses eye contact with the audience. Because he or she has to follow the text, it is impossible to do more than glance up at his listeners from time to time, whereas someone speaking spontaneously will naturally be looking round at the listeners. When reading, a presenter also loses the chance to make gestures and arm movements, which are naturally suppressed when reading from a script because they seem artificial. None-the-less reading a written text is a method often used. It is one I don’t recommend. In all but exceptional circumstances, it is a sure way of losing the attention and interest of the audience. It is an expensive way of buying the confidence that you won’t forget what you are going to say. You may not forget, but the audience almost certainly will.

If you are terrified of forgetting what to say, there is a compromise which helps boost confidence, by providing safety points to return to if the impromptu flow of words breaks down. The technique is to write down the opening and closing sentences, as well as sections within the speech, for use in the case of emergencies. By providing islands of security, you will increase your self-confidence. It also provides natural resting places, and if the worst happens, and you dry up, there is something to say while you are finding your feet again. But don’t write down more than a few sentences, otherwise the whole talk will acquire the monotonous flavour of the written script. The first sentence of each new topic, and the conclusion of each section, is as far as you should go. In between, use ordinary notes.