On Writing vs. Speaking

Paul Graham wrote recently on his perspectives on the written vs. spoken word.

Graham admits he’s more confident as a writer than a speaker. This biases his comparisons and his essay. He’d have benefited from talking to people who he thinks are both good speakers and good thinkers (and perhaps good writers) as they’d have the balanced perspective he admits he does not have. He writes:

Having good ideas is most of writing well. If you know what you’re talking about, you can say it in the plainest words and you’ll be perceived as having a good style. With speaking it’s the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker.

Most writers are unable to write in plain words or unable to find good ideas. Why? I don’t know, but it’s harder than Graham suggests for most people. Graham has ideas and does write well in a simple style, but he’s assuming most people can do it because he can. Read the web for an hour: this is not the case. It’s splitting hairs to argue over whether there is more bad writing or bad speaking on planet earth since there is so much of both.

Speaking is harder in many ways than writing because it is performance. You have to do it live. Some people who do not like to perform try to do what Graham does: they try to memorize their way through it, which doesn’t work. You tend to fail when using a method for one form in another form. Performance means there is no undo and no revision, which is a huge part of the appeal of seeing bands and people do things live and in person. It’s why I’m paid more as a speaker than I am as a writer:  the same was true for Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and even David Sedaris or Malcolm Gladwell.

Writing is harder in some ways than speaking. Writing must be self contained: there is no body language or vocal emphasis as everything must be in the words themselves. But the ability to revise and edit dozens of times narrows the gap. With enough work you can revise your way into competence. Yet speaking is performance: there is no revision of an event. You can perform it again to improve on mistakes, but each instance must be done every time. When you finish an essay, it is done forever.

Graham writes:

With speaking it’s the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker. I first noticed this at a conference several years ago. There was another speaker who was much better than me. He had all of us roaring with laughter. I seemed awkward and halting by comparison. Afterward I put my talk online like I usually do. As I was doing it I tried to imagine what a transcript of the other guy’s talk would be like, and it was only then I realized he hadn’t said very much.

This confuses entertainment with expression. Popular writing can be similarly hijacked – look at twitter and the web – all media has this problem. There are different tricks to use in each form, but an essay can make you laugh, or make you angry, or make you hit the Facebook like button, despite not saying much, or anything at all.

I do agree with Graham that some speakers and “thinkers” are popular solely because they are likable and entertain, or infuriate and inflame. But this is a failing of all mediums, including writing.

Graham continues:

 A few years later I heard a talk by someone who was not merely a better speaker than me, but a famous speaker. Boy was he good. So I decided I’d pay close attention to what he said, to learn how he did it. After about ten sentences I found myself thinking “I don’t want to be a good speaker.” Being a really good speaker is not merely orthogonal to having good ideas, but in many ways pushes you in the opposite direction.

Wow.

Emerson, Gandhi, Churchill, MLK, Jesus, Socrates, Lincoln, Mandela. These are a handful of great thinkers who used speaking as a primary medium of expression.

It’s true that much of what some of them spoke was heavily written before it was spoken, but the world experienced these ideas first as spoken words.

I have to stop here to acknowledge that the history of thinking was spoken. The Ancient Greeks, where many of our big ideas still come from, talked. Writing as a primary way to express ideas wouldn’t arrive for 1500 years. Talking and thinking have a much older relationship than writing and thinking. That doesn’t mean speaking is better – writing has many advantages – but to sweep speaking aside is foolish, and reflects Graham’s bias more than his wisdom.  Many ideas at many startups are discovered, shared and developed through spoken words. Pitch meetings, arguments at whiteboards, late night hacking sessions, discussions over lunch: it’s heavily spoken word. Life is mostly spoken, not written.

Graham continues:

The way to get the attention of an audience is to give them your full attention, and when you’re delivering a prewritten talk your attention is always divided between the audience and the talk—even if you’ve memorized it. If you want to engage an audience it’s better start with no more than an outline of what you want to say and ad lib the individual sentences.

This is where Graham, whose work I admire, makes a big mistake. He has admitted he’s not a good speaker and doesn’t like the form. Why then does he feel qualified to give advice on how to do it well?

In my bestseller The Confessions of a Public Speaker I carefully explain audience attention depends on answering questions they came to hear. The majority of speakers fail at this, focusing on what they themselves wish to speak about, or what their slides will look like, rather than their audience. Speaking, like writing, is an ego trap. It’s not about you, it’s about them: what questions do they want answered? What stories did they come to hear? If you understand why your audience showed up at all, and deliver on it, you will keep their attention. Graham’s advice is all about the speaker, but that’s the common tragedy – it’s not about speaker. A speaker who studies the audience and puts together content that addresses their interests will always do well. They’re rare.

 Before I give a talk I can usually be found sitting in a corner somewhere with a copy printed out on paper, trying to rehearse it in my head. But I always end up spending most of the time rewriting it instead.

I would never do this. I stay up late the night before, if needed, to finish preparing. I practice the talk several times, revising if needed, until I’m comfortable. This comfort allows me to be fully present with an audience and not worried about my knowledge of my own material. This is also how I ad-lib or change directions based on a live audience. My preparation gives me the confidence to make adjustments.  An hour before my talk I’m not thinking much about my talk at all.

I do agree with Graham in some ways. I do prefer writing at times. But unlike Graham, I love both forms. I know I become a better writer every time I speak, and become a better speaker every time I write.

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Related: An open letter to speakers, which gives specific practical advice on speaking.

16 Responses to “On Writing vs. Speaking”

  1. Phil Simon

    Great advice, Scott. I’m with you. It’s always easiest to edit your written words; it’s impossible to take back missteps when you’re speaking–especially when it’s videotaped.

    And, you’re right: if he’s not good at it, then why is he giving advice? I take your advice in the book to heart and practice extensively during the week before one of my talks–even if I know the material well. We all are competing with smartphones on our audience’s laps. Bore them and we’ll quickly lose them.

    Reply
    • Trevor Owens

      Loved this post Scott. Comparing Speaking & Writing is like apples & oranges. Two different skills that mastering can have two different affects on the people around you.

      Reply
    • Paul Sherman

      I’ll admit I’m not a very good speaker. I saw Mr. Graham’s advice as more focused on someone like me, to help me get through presentations and speeches.

      Part of my problem is that I think in pictures, rather than words. It’s much easier to translate my thoughts into writing than speech. It’s like describing a movie out loud while it’s still going on. I have to really KNOW most of what I’m going to say beforehand, or I will get completely lost.

      Reply
  2. Kristin Arnold

    So why is it an either/or proposition? A “versus” rather than “and”. I don’t know of many professional speakers who don’t write – although I do know several authors who do not speak!
    I also believe audiences are becoming more sophisticated and more demanding of speakers. Well, not all speakers. Audiences will salivate to listen to a “celebrity” because our culture celebrates the famous. But for those of us who are celebrities in our own minds, where we own a little piece of intellectual property and dare to call ourselves and “expert” – you can’t just wing it. You need to own the domain; know your content so well that you can converse with the audience – joyfully weaving in bits of story and oft-recited content that it feels extemporaneous – even though you have poured hours into crafting it just for them.
    Gosh, it’s great to be a speaker and a writer, don’t you think?

    Reply
  3. Rick Watson

    Great thoughts. Both are wonderful for different reasons.

    I totally agree you can’t memorize a talk, at least how I like to do it. I do like to know the first minute or two of my opening. And I do like to write down all (say) slide transitions in advance, but mostly to make sure the presentation flows.

    The thing I find MOST fascinating about speaking is just how different my practices are than my actual presentation. If you know the material well, it is just remarkably different.

    Reply
    • CJ Alexander

      Folks, there’s a difference between “I prefer not to memorize” and “you can’t memorize.” For example, highly successful stand-up comedians, which I’ll define as earning $100k/yr and having 10+ years of professional experience, don’t just memorize and repeat the exact same words verbatim — they’ll experiment, reject, and eventually lock in (memorize) exact variations of synonym choice, intra-word syllable emphasis, vowel pronunciation, rhythmic meter — all before we even get to (non-vocal) body language, which comprises around 70% of human communication.

      Chris Rock’s did something interesting to illustrate this in his 2006 HBO special “Never Scared”: it was recorded at 3 different arena shows in NYC, London, and Johannesburg. Each venue has a different backdrop, and Rock even wears slightly different outfits; “continuity” (as such) was deliberately ignored.

      Throughout the show, the camera cuts liberally between each location — sometimes in the middle of a joke, right between the setup and punchline!

      It was perfectly seamless, of course, and therefore gave the illusion of being temporally contiguous. He could do this both because he spent months beforehand testing dozens or even hundreds of variations for every single joke, all in an effort to wring every last drop of humor from each.

      Memorization is a pain in the ass, just like any other mental or physical drill. Most public speakers would prefer not to do it, and that’s more than understandable. But let’s at least avoid making inductive arguments to valorize the path of least resistance.

      Reply
      • CJ Alexander

        Ugh, that post is a grammatical holocaust. I apologize for any distraction it may have caused; I had a long night on the road!

        Reply
        • Scott Berkun

          CJ: No worries. At first I thought you meant my post was the holocaust – I’m relieved you were referring to your own comment.

          Reply
      • CJ Alexander

        The Chris Rock HBO special described above is actually 2008′s “Kill the Messenger.” It’s excellent. “Never Scared” is still my favorite, though (especially the sociological commentary / scorching dissent during the middle 20min, starting with the “‘rich’ vs ‘wealthy’” riff).

        @Scott – Yikes, sorry about that! I’d have argued mitigation by pointing to my lowercase and indefinite article. :) But yeah, point taken: not a very appropriate metaphor (at least outside a green room).

        Reply
  4. Sean Crawford

    My favorite hobbies are public speaking and composing essays.

    Paul is correct that speaking has less content, but only in the sense that TV, with its aversion to “talking heads,” has less content than print. To then conclude that I have fewer ideas when preparing a speech than for an essay is just wrong.

    I remember teaching a seminar at university when someone burst out, “You’re an oral learner; my LD (learning disabled) kids talk like you!” Yes, talking over a speech or class a week beforehand really helps me generate ideas and think. When I rehearse I am “talking.”

    Sometimes, to fill a gap in a Toastmaster’s evening, I will give an impromptu abridged version of an essay, and deliver it as a performance, and it goes over fine.

    Even though my own essays are all but memorized, given my extensive copyediting, I would never deliver them word for word, nor rehearse a speech word for word. My thought is this: The audience might not be bored, but I sure would be.

    Reply
  5. zproxy

    I truly enjoyed this article! My takeaway – The question is as a speaker does one have the answers the audience is looking for?

    Reply
  6. Paul W. Homer

    When spinning a yarn, or relaying a tall tale, I prefer speaking, since I can balance what I am saying against the feedback from the person listening (and I can exaggerate aspects of the story as I go). But when it comes to organizing my ideas, and getting the finer details correct I definitely prefer writing these days. In writing, I can take all the time I need to do some research, and re-edit the work a few million times until I think it makes my point. But then as I’ve aged, I’ve tilted farther and farther towards my introverted side …

    Paul.

    Reply
  7. Inbound Marketing Guy

    I think it depends entirely on the person, so speaking isn’t “harder” than writing (or the other way around). To some, giving an amazing speech is no more difficult than going for a walk. There are some people – amazing as it is – that “can just play.”

    Speaking may not be harder, but it’s certainly more risky (which is one of the reasons you get paid more to speak than to write).

    There’s just not much comparison between writing a guest blog on a website read by 20,000 people and giving a speech to 20,000 people! Speeches usually happen at paid events or company rah rah events – some of these have big budgets – and a great speaker can get people amp’d up for days.

    Reply
  8. Claire Duffy

    This is a great post, and I wish I’d found it sooner. I offer you this list of suggestions – from someone who does the transcribing, and has to turn the spoken into the written word:
    1. Begin a sentence knowing how you’ll end it
    2. Don’t embark on an anecdote or explanatory example if you haven’t tied up your pre-amble
    3. Use short words – they’ll be less likely to escape you in the moment and won’t weigh down your sentences
    4. Avoid idioms. Best case scenario they’re clichéd and add nothing – worst case scenario you garble them and it becomes fodder for anyone who wants to paint you a fool.
    5. Focus on putting a gap between thinking and speaking. This can be difficult in interviews, political debates or live broadcast, but a second or two is all you need.
    6. Breathe. Know what you’re going to say before you open your mouth.
    7.Speak slowly and use pauses. The more time you can give your brain to get ahead of your mouth, the better.
    More at http://wp.me/p2k3hy-rd if you’re interested

    Reply

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