Words for the Ears

A presentation to Chatswood Early Risers Toastmasters club delivered on 17th February 2009

My job is technical writing. I have written course workbooks for use in training classes run by our consultants. They do all the talking, using my work as a teaching aid.

About a year ago I started work on producing E-Learning.  I  had to write a voiceover script  for a series of slides and movies. I gave my first script writing effort to an experienced reviewer. The feedback I got  was rather brutal. What I had written didn’t sound good when it was read out loud.

What was the problem? I had discovered a fundamental truth: Written English and Spoken English are two different mediums.

As a reader, you have the luxury of adjusting your reading speed to the material. You can read slowly or you can read quickly. Reading has the advantage that if you don’t understand something  you can go back and reread it. If you don’t understand a word  you can interrupt your reading to look the word up in a dictionary.

With spoken English, your listeners only hear each word once, and if they miss what you said they can’t press a replay button to hear your words again. As a speaker, this means you have one chance to get your message across.

What does this mean to you as a Toastmaster? Writing a speech is different to writing an article, a report or email. You need to write in such a way that your listener will recognise your words immediately and understand what you are saying.

When you write a speech, you are writing a script which you are going to perform. The document is not the speech,  your performance in interpreting the words is the speech.

I’m going to share some tips to help you write for the ear and not the eye. First of all, let’s explore sentence structure.

Sentence Structure

Short sentences.   Listen carefully to a conversation or a radio announcer. The sentences are short and easy to understand.  This is how we speak in conversation.

Avoid  sub clauses. Write simple sentences with one clause.  For example:

“This morning, Jan presented an information packed speech”.

When you add more information with sub-clauses you get complexity:

“Jan, working towards the Advanced Communicator Gold award , presented an information packed speech, in conjunction with two other Toastmasters.”

We don’t speak like that! The sentence contained 21 words instead of the earlier example of 8 words.  Your short term memory won’t  hold all that information and you are probably struggling to understand what point I was trying to make.

Look out for and and but. Consider starting a new sentence instead of continuing with and or but.  Conversational English has lots of short sentence.  Long sentences are the domain of written English.

Word Choice

Choose simple visual words. Use words that conjure up strong mental images. If you were talking about cost-cutting, which is more visual? Reduce costs or Slash costs? You probably imagine the grim reader waving a sickle in the accounts department.

Write for an audience of one. Write as if you are having a conversation with one person.  Use the word you. For example,  instead of saying, “a lot of people want to try skydiving”,  be more personal —   “Have you ever wanted to go skydiving?” Did this sentence make you feel more strongly connected with me?

Monosyllable.  Words with one syllable are easy to hear and are usually easier to recognise. We are not trying to dumb down our speech with basic English.  These words are used every day. For example, start is more effective than commence. End is better than finish.

Be specific.  When you choose words, use words that are concrete and specific. Don’t be vague by using words like it or them.  If you were talking about the rugby team, use words like team or players.


The sound of the word
.  Another thing to consider when choosing words is how they sound. Did  your Valentines Day chocolates taste great or were they luscious  and filled with creamy, whipped nougat.

Fine Tuning Your Speech.

It can be quite challenging to write for the ear instead of writing for the eye.
Here are some tips to help you polish your speech. Did you like that word polish? It creates a stronger mental image instead of edit or revise doesn’t it?

Read your script out loud. The way to edit your speech is to read it out loud as if you were presenting it. Are there words which sound unclear? Is there a better word that creates a stronger image?

Print your speech  for readability.  Print your speech in a large font (Arial 14 is good) and wide margins (at least 5 cm). Break the text up into very short paragraphs. This is the script you use to rehearse your delivery.


Delete unnecessary words
. Be ruthless in deleting every word you don’t need. As you read the speech out loud you will become aware of words that can be deleted.
Your script may look simple, but …   Don’t worry if your script looks bland and simple. The power of your speech lies in the delivery.

Speech writing has a lot in common with Radio Production and podcasting.
Try these techniques, and above all, have fun with your speechwriting.

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Author: charuzu

I live in Sydney and interests include music, piano playing, technology, cooking, English language, public speaking, Toastmasters, Asian culture (especially Japan and Korea), cinema, personal development, productivity and making friends with people from around the world.

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