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Writers’ Rules for Speakers


by David Brooks

1990 World Champion of Public Speaking
Austin, Texas

A lot of speakers publish books…but they are not writers. A lot of writers are asked to speak…yet they are not speakers. So which are you—a writer or a speaker?

Why not be both? If you’ve ever heard me speak before, I hope you noticed that I covered more ground in less time than many speakers do. That’s because my training as a journalist taught me the value of conciseness. What is conciseness? It’s a combination of clarity and brevity. You can be concise if, and only if, you are clear and brief.

So which is easier: clarity or brevity? The answer: brevity. All you have to do is say fewer words. But brevity itself is not enough. Because it is entirely possible to be brief but not clear. If you’ve seen me present my Eight Essentials of Effective Speaking program, you’ve seen one of my favorite examples: it’s a sign on a rest room door at a community center. The sign simply reads “Rest Room Closed Except for Special Events.”

That’s brief, but it’s certainly not clear. What’s missing is clarity…or, the best words.

As speakers, we should strive for both clarity and brevity. That is, it should be our goal to use the fewest and best words.

Just as a good writer does, good speakers should rid their message of clutter and confusion. Given a choice between complicated and simple, take simple every time. Why? Listeners, like many readers, are in a hurry. But there’s a big difference between listeners and readers. Readers can always re-read. But listeners, unless they are listening to a recording, cannot re-listen.

Therefore, conciseness—that powerful combination of clarity and brevity—is even more important for speakers than for writers. 

So how can speakers be more concise? Here are three tips to get you started.

1. Don’t make your listener struggle to find your point.
Today’s listener is impatient. He does not want suspense and will rarely be impressed with intricate or clever wordplay. As a result, simplify. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The greatest of all talents is never using two words when one will do.

Speakers, like writers, should be mindful of the “one-minute barrier.” That is, the typical impatient listener, like the typical busy reader, will decide within one minute whether the message is important enough to justify paying attention to. Consequently, if your principal message is not evident in your opening minute, there is a good chance the listener’s mind will wander. And once the listener’s mind wanders, you may never get it back.

That’s point number one: get off to a fast start if you hope to see your listener at the finish line.

2. Don’t encourage misunderstanding and confusion.
I love working with words—but what I love most is finding the best words. Notice I didn’t say “the biggest” words, just the best. And sometimes the best words are not what you think.

Here are two examples: how often is “bimonthly?” Is it “twice a month”; or is it “every two months”? Guess what...it’s both. Look it up: bi-monthly means both every two weeks and every two months. Well…isn’t that a handy word to use. No, as you can see, it’s a terrible word to use because it will do nothing but cause confusion and misunderstanding. So what should you use instead? “Every two weeks or twice monthly” if you mean every 14 days. Of course, if you’re in England you can say “fortnightly” but I wouldn’t recommend you try that anywhere outside the British Isles. If you mean every two months, say every two months. And, yes, you could say “semi-monthly” but then you have a whole new set of problems, don’t you?

The fact is “bi-monthly” is ambiguous; it can be interpreted in more than one way. Therefore, careful writers and careful speakers avoid it.

This is an example where the right word may not be the shortest. And it’s a great example of an earlier point: clarity trumps brevity.

My second example under the category of “Don’t encourage misunderstanding or confusion” is another frequently misunderstood word. In fact, it’s almost universally misunderstood.
Define “peruse.” What do you think it means: “to skim...to scan...to read quickly?” That’s what most people think…and most people are wrong. In fact, peruse means exactly the opposite. It actually means “to read carefully or attentively; to scrutinize.” So is this a word you want to use as a writer or as a speaker? Not unless misunderstanding and confusion is your goal.

Finally,

3. Don’t be intimidated by “the rules.”
Natural, expressive writing and speaking can be a difficult process if you concentrate on the “dont’s.” Do you remember these: Don’t split an infinitive. Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t use first-person singular pronouns, and so on. Guess what—they aren’t really rules at all. Every one of these “don’ts” are actually “do’s” in certain circumstances.

Take the “preposition at the end of a sentence” rule, for example. Of course, it is not desirable to say or write: “Where is he at?” The preposition “at” is unnecessary—it’s superfluous—so eliminate it. But the reason you should eliminate it is to increase brevity, not because it’s a preposition.

There are many cases, in fact, in which a preposition at the end of a sentence is desirable. For example: “This is the report I have been telling you about.” Can you eliminate the preposition “about”? No, it wouldn’t make sense. But you can rewrite the sentence: “This is the report about which I have been telling you.” Yet, that sounds pretentious. So when faced with such a choice, end the sentence with a preposition, secure in the knowledge that you did so for a good reason.

In all of the “don’ts” listed above, they are recommendations, rather than rules. But just because they are recommendations doesn’t mean they are right. You see, slavish adherence to rules or unquestioning submission to recommendations can create more problems than they were intended to solve.

Whether you are a writer or a speaker...or both, you will always be more effective if you let clarity and simplicity be your guide.


Reprint rights may be granted provided you 1) submit a written request, 2) include author’s credit as written below, and 3) provide a copy of the publication in which the article appears.

Author’s credit:
David Brooks, DTM, won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in 1990. Since that time he has coached and/or mentored six subsequent World Champions and dozens of finalists. You may contact him at http://www.DavidBrooksTexas.com

Author’s note:
If you want to learn more about becoming a better speaker, visit David’s website. Under the Resources tab you will find many free resources for writers and speakers. And, when you are there, sign up for David’s free blog-azine so that you can receive nuggets of knowledge from him on a regular basis.