Talking Isn’t Writing (Part Two)

Part two of a two part series.  Read Talking Isn’t Writing Part One here.

Talking isn’t writing.

That may seem obvious enough, as I said in Part One of this post. But mixing up the two is perhaps the single most common mistake business communicators make.

Speakers too often don’t really speak to their audiences. They in effect write out loud. A reporter’s question is answered by unreeling sentences loaded with commas, clauses, asides and afterthoughts. That’s writing out loud. On a page, it may read as a rather impressive march of swooping, diving, bobbing, weaving, very intellectual point making. It’s not, unfortunately, what a journalist needs – a quotable, declarative sentence. You can’t quote a sentence that’s eighteen words long. You need about eight words.

Speaking to an auditorium with a thousand people in it isn’t all that different. Complex sentences and the complex thoughts that usually accompany them deny listeners what they want – interesting, easy to follow and entertaining ideas. That doesn’t exclude bold themes, depth, unexpected twists and turns, or even a joke or two. It does exclude the layers of hierarchical thought best handled by the written word.

Fact is, studies of human communication share a conclusion:  when we speak, most of what gets across is physical. At least 70% of effective communication derives from connecting with eye contact, sustaining attention by varying the lilt and rhythm of the voice, emphasizing points with active, expressive hands. How we say something wins hearts. It causes a positive feeling that arouses interest and holds it.

Only then will minds, the intellects we want to persuade, follow. In communication, in other words, the heart is the horse, and the mind is the cart.

After all, we don’t fall in love with someone’s information. We fall in love, or like, with someone’s presence. How they come across. Sure, what’s said matters. About 30%, psychologists say – or less. The rest is physical.

When speaking to an audience, the body needs to open up. We need to be relaxed to convey the energy conveyed by gestures and vocal patterns. Too much thinking on our feet, even if we consider ourselves good at it, removes us from real engagement. When we think, we withdraw into our heads. Picture Rodin’s sculpture, “The Thinker.” Forbidding, distanced, in his own world.

When we communicate – we draw people in. Communication is more sensual than intellectual.

To speak effectively, get the mental part, the thinking, over with before you ever open your mouth. Decide ahead of time on a limited number of key themes. Two, or three, backed up by examples. Those messages become the firm ground under your feet. They steady you. They’re always there. You can return to them again and again. Lock in ideas and then – just talk. Be yourself.

That’s how to find your voice. That’s what creates a sense in an audience that they are really being spoken to.

In the end, it’s all about confidence. Keep it simple so that you can express yourself with ease. That’s good for you – and good for your listeners.

So here’s a tip. Treat your next  interview or speaking opportunity more like Friday night dinner with friends than a professional responsibility. More as play than work.

You’ll have more fun. So will your audience.


Yes – it matters. Someone who is fun to listen to, easy to follow, entertaining, original, fascinating, maybe even profound – is someone we’re more likely to believe and to trust. Not to mention, to get to the bottom line, someone we’re more likely to want to buy something from.

I buy it, after all, is how we want an audience to respond to us, whether a “Wall Street Journal” reporter or a roomful of clients or potential clients. I get it. I may not even agree with you, but I hear you, I respect where you’re coming from, you interested me.

You got across. That’s the goal. It starts with recognizing the difference between how we speak and how we write. Human capacities that evolved millennia apart and that are controlled by distinct parts of the brain.

Next time you express a point of view in public, bring a little Friday night. Even if it’s a rainy Monday morning in February.

When you ground how you communicate in the difference between talking and writing, your audience will feel the difference, and so will you.

After all – it’s only human.