Writing and Speaking

I’m pretty good at public speaking, even extemporaneously. If we were at some event and the speaker was a no-show you could ask me to speak instead, and by the time I’d gone from my seat to the stage I’d have figured out something to say. I’ve gotten good at filling time with words.

In public speaking you have to. You have to speak almost constantly. Anything longer than a dramatic pause and you seem unprepared, frozen up, and wasting people’s time. So public speakers learn to generate a steady stream of content.

This ability seems, at first, to help with writing too. When I think of something to write about the speaker in me starts chattering, generating content galore. All I have to do is transcribe what it says. Writing like this is easy.

But easy writing makes hard reading, the adage goes. In this case the easy writing, courtesy of my public-speaking voice, generates serious clutter. Fixing it takes lots of editing or, often, starting over because the piece has strayed too far.

I’d like to keep my writings from requiring tedious editing or going off the rails. The key to this, I think, will be to stop conflating writing and speaking; to recognize them, despite their similarities, as distinct activities.

And they do work differently. They have, for instance, different relationships to time. When speaking, the thought “What do I say next?” must be followed immediately by spoken content. But when writing, the thought “What do I say next?” can be followed by as much time and silence as one needs.[1] This results from another difference: when speaking your audience is right there in front of you while when writing your audience is actually still in the future.[2]

These are huge differences. Why are they so easy to overlook? Why are writing and speaking so easy to confuse? Probably because it’s so easy to convert one into the other: a public-speaking voice playing in one’s own head can be easily transcribed into writing, and a finished piece of writing read aloud to an audience counts for public speaking, at least technically.

But in those conversions something is lost. Being able to stop while writing affords valuable opportunities to boost the quality and presentation of your ideas. Not being able to stop while speaking publicly, not being able to undo or take back your words, gives you the chance to offer a unique and dynamic performance while the audience thrills to the perilousness of it all. Till we really get that public speaking and writing are subtly yet significantly different, we miss those opportunities.

[1] I’m trying to use this time to dialogue with myself: What is it I’m really getting at? What thought sparked writing this piece? And my favorite way of reorienting myself lately (borrowed from Paul Graham) is to pause and wonder: Of all the places I can go from here, which would be most interesting?

[2] Interestingly, though the writer need not pay as much attention to the passage of time while writing, he must instead consider and even manage the future reader’s experience of time. Punctuation is one means; with it the writer tries to make the reader pause for different amounts of time.

Note: Though the ideas in this essay had been fomenting for some time, it was Graham’s piece on a similar topic that moved them to front and center. In his essay he writes from the perspective of someone who is a better writer than speaker, whereas with me it is reversed. I also borrowed his title.