Module VIII: Public Speaking

Section 5, Addendum: Written versus Spoken English

All languages, including English, have a set of rules by which they operate. We learn this grammar in school to prepare us to communicate most effectively using these common set of rules and expectations. Most of us spent hours writing sentences, paragraphs, and essays, to learn about spelling, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, subordinate clauses, compound-complex sentences, and so on.

The ability to use these rules in written communication is extremely important. By adhereing to the language's grammar, others will more easily be able to read and interpret the message accurately. Just as the words are symbols to stimulate meaning, the grammar dictates how the words relate to each other to clarify meaning. For instance, to say, "Keith, Lori, Ruth, and David went out to dinner" is different than "Keith and Lori, and Ruth and David went out to dinner." The former suggests four individuals, while the latter suggests two couples.

However, oral communication is different in several important ways. Since we cannot see any punctuation, and since we cannot see paragraphs or other structural elements, we experience the language differently, and we use the language differently. While the same basic grammatical rules are assumed, the expectations for oral language and written language differ.

  • Sponteneity: In writing, we can revise and rewrite as much as we wish prior to the reader seeing the document. This means that written language tends to be more carefully scripted, with words deliberately selected and thoughtfully considered. We will use many words in writing that we rarely, if ever, use in speaking. In speaking, we are creating as we go, so the speech will consist more of our typical, daily, informal language that comes to us spontaneously and immediately.
  • Complexity: In writing, we use far more complex sentence structures than in speaking. For example, a written thesis may read, "While the cost of higher education has risen dramatically in the last twenty years, the value of an advanced degree is still high; thus, It is important for students today to have a familiarity with the options available for funding their college experience," and an oral thesis may sound more like, "Since a college degree can help you get the career and lifestyle you want, today I want to tell you about some different financial aid options you may not have considered."
  • Person: From the previous example, note the use of the third person in the written form and the use of first person and second person in the oral form. When speaking, we are directing comments directly to our intended audience, building a connection between speaker and audience. Accordingly, we speak more personally, using "I" to refer to ourselves, and "you" to refer directly to the audience.
  • Formality: In writing, we tend to use a higher level of language and more formal language, while in speaking we are far more informal. For example, in writing we typical do not use contractions, while in speaking it can sound awkward if we do not use contractions. "Do not" is fine in writing, but in speaking, "don't" is more typical. While in writing we might say, "Due to a number of economic variables, the increase in higher education costs in the last 2 decades has clearly outpaced the rate of inflation," orally we might say, "For a number of reasons, going to college has gotten a lot more expensive in the last twenty years."
  • Directness: In speaking, we have to use clear, blunt transitions. Since we do not have any visual clues, such as a paragraph indentation, section headers, or chapters to show the audience we are moving on to a new topic, we use signposts. Signposts are blunt, clear transitions indicating a shift of topic. We carefully guide the audience through the speech to make sure they see how the key points of the speech all tie together. Always remember, a reader can always go back and re-read, but a live audience cannot go back and re-listen.
  • Preciseness: In writing, when citing a statistic, we typically given the precise statistic, while in a speech, unless the situation calls for such precision, we typically round off numbers or give them in a more generalized sense. For example, "The enrollment at Ridgewater College for Fall 2017 stands at 4,169 students on the 10th day of classes," is a more precise, written style, while "There are about 4100 students at Ridgewater this fall," is a more informal, oral style.

When using an oral style with extemporaneous speaking, there are some adjustments a novice speaker has to make:

  • Accept that the speech will not sound the same twice in a row. Since we speak from an outline that guides us through the mainpoints of the speech, the order and substance of these speech will be the same each time through it. However, since we are not speaking from a verbatim script, the precise wording we use will vary each time we give it.
  • Accept that one's typical, daily vocabulary is the core language to use. Speakers should never attempt to show off their knowledge by using a language level with which they are unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Attempting to speak over ones knowlege base can create embarrassing situations for speaker and audience. While using specific terms as needed is fine, artificially attempting to inflate ones vocabulary to impress the audience is a poor choice.
  • Accept that there will be some disfluencies. When speaking extemporaneously in a more conversational, natural tone, the speaker will inevitably have a few disfluencies, such as "uh," "uhm," "you know," or "okay." As long as these are kept at a minimum, most audience members will overlook them. Furthermore, an absence of disfluencies can actually make the speaker seem over-prepared, too scripted, and can lead to lower credibility.

With practice, novice speakers can quickly develop a comfort level in speaking extemporaneously, avoiding the pitfalls of a scripted message.