Reading an essay to an audience can bore them to tears. I recently attended a conference where a brilliant man was speaking on a topic about which he was one of the world’s experts. Unfortunately, what he delivered was not a speech but an essay. This renowned academic had mastered the written form but mistakenly presumed that the same style could be used at a podium in the context of an hour-long public address. He treated the audience to exceptional content that was almost impossible to follow — monotone, flat, read from a script, and delivered from behind a tall podium.
He would have done well to heed the words of communication professor Bob Frank: “A speech is not an essay on its hind legs.” There is a huge difference between crafting a speech and writing an essay. And for those new to public speaking, the tendency to mimic the forms of writing we already know can be crippling.
Speeches require you to simplify. The average adult reads 300 words per minute, but people can only follow speech closely at around 150-160 words per minute. Similarly, studies have shown auditory memory is typically inferior to visual memory, and while most of us can read for hours, our ability to focus on a speech is more constrained. It’s important, then, to write brief and clear speeches. Ten minutes of speaking is only about 1,300 words (you can use this calculator), and while written texts — which can be reviewed, reread, and reexamined — can be subtle and nuanced, spoken word must be followed in the moment and must be appropriately short, sweet, and to the point.
As you focus on brevity and clarity in a speech, it’s also important to signpost and review. In a written essay, readers can revisit confusing passages or missed points. Once you lose someone in a speech, she may be lost for good. In your introduction, state your thesis and then lay out the structure of your speech ahead of time (e.g., “we’ll see this in three ways: x, y, and z”). Then, as you work through your speech,...