Talking Isn’t Writing (Part One)

July 11, 2012

Talking isn’t writing. Obviously. One comes out of your mouth, the other flows (assuming you’re on your game as a writer) from your fingers. Even the regions of the brain that control talking and writing differ. We read with the visual cortex, which is toward the back of that two and a half pounds of gray gelatinous matter afloat between your ears. Speech, on the other hand, is understood – whether admiringly, you put that so well, or with horror, you said what, are you kidding me!? – via the auditory cortex, which is located more or less in the center of the brain. Nestled in front of that is Broca’s area, the switchboard for what we actually say, for our gems, jokes, gibberish.

Long before we wrote, human beings talked. We got beyond the grunt stage, began to weave simple sentences, at least 100,000 years ago. Some say – most prominently linguist Noam Chomsky – that talking burst from us suddenly, virtually overnight, as a result of a twinge in our DNA.  A genetic mutation, in other words, led both to the Gettysburg Address and to that Miss USA contestant who referred to “the South Africa.”

Others suggest a more gradual evolution. These students of the spoken word believe the ability to talk is grounded in our primordial desire to stand around the water cooler and say cutting things about, well, that beauty contestant. We evolved the ability to talk, in short, these linguists say, to gossip. Talking trash about one another knit the tribe together beyond just collaborating to hunt down meat. What’s with that guy on the other side of the cave who never shuts up about that “wheel” thing he’s all worked up about? Or, I swear I saw Og out by the Mastodon graveyard the other night and that girl he had with him was definitely not his wife…

All of it, these experts say, ignited our ability to talk.

It would be another 95,000 years before the Sumerians created the pictograph, the origin of written language.

Two distinct forms of communication, then, emergent from different parts of the brain, at different epochs in our evolution.

This divergence, unfortunately, is not often apparent when business people answer questions or speak in public. Not to mention doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and just about any other professional out there.

These very smart folks tend to mix and mingle – and ultimately mangle – the spoken word and the written word.

Writing is good at conveying complex thought. Speech, on the other hand, is built for simpler ideas. It can explain, ignite, inspire. It can be substantive, even profound. But it should not be complicated. The brain’s capacity to absorb intricate information when someone is talking, across the air, is limited. It’s hard to get too many points across when we talk. We just evolved that way.

That’s why when the brain is overtaxed by spoken complexity, when it can’t readily follow what’s going on, it tends to react with a physical phenomenon known as boredom. Losing an audience you’re speaking to? Noticing eyelids flutter, heads droop? Is there audible snoring?

Chances are you’re not really speaking. You are, to one degree or another, writing – out loud.

I’ll talk about more about this in my next post – and offer some suggestions to avoid turning yourself into human Ambien.

Stay tuned for the follow up post.

Bill Delaney is a Senior Vice President at Ketchum specializing in communications training, media strategy and writing. He spent more than 25 years as a reporter in network television, print and radio, working worldwide. For the past several years, he has counseled executives at dozens of the world’s top global companies.