Four Things Public Speakers Can Do, But Writers Can’t

Less scary than a blank piece of paper? (photo from

For a short while in my teaching career, I taught public speaking in addition to teaching writing. I loved teaching public speaking, mainly because the students seemed to take it so much more seriously than they did writing instruction. Most kids are perfectly willing to slap some words on a piece of paper in study hall seconds before a writing assignment is due and think nothing of it–after all, who cares if the teacher is impressed? But it’s an entirely different matter to present ideas that are unorganized and ill-conceived to an entire room of one’s peers. I found that the students who took public speaking took all the instruction about getting attention, staying focused and organized, and using relevant examples to heart and were better writers because of it. Good public speaking skills translate into good writing skills. But there are some things public speakers can do that writers typically should not. (Note: The list below does not apply to technical writing, where all bets are off when it comes to style.)

1.) Writers can’t come right out and say, “This paper is about.” A good public speaker has clear markers–so clear that they can’t be missed by the listener. Hearing is fleeting–you can’t go back and re-hear a speech in real time (thank goodness for YouTube). Not so with writing, where subtlety can be highly desirable. Speaking and writing, while related, are two distinct forms of communication. Public speakers are advised to “KISS” (Keep It Simple, Stupid) while writers are allowed a more artful style. In fact, I don’t know who started the idea that students should write papers that say “I am going to tell you about,” or “This paper is about,” but please stop it. It’s dreadful writing. It works for public speakers, but not for writers.

2.) Writers can’t say, “This paper has three points.” I love it when a speaker tells us from the get-go how many points his speech has. This is a way of making a contract with the listener: Hang in there with me for three points and then I will stop talking and you can go to the bathroom. Really, I promise. The listener thinks, OK, you’ve got a deal. But writers need to use a little more art.

3.) Writers can’t just say, “In conclusion.” You know that feeling when you’ve listened to a speech that’s gone on too long, and the speaker finally says, “In conclusion,” and you want to scream, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!”? You can almost reach out and touch an audience’s relief when a speaker wraps up, even if it was a really good speech. So the phrase “in conclusion”(or something to that effect) is a gift for both speaker and listener. But I’d never let my writing students off so easily. I had a rule in my class that if nine out of ten people would approach a writing task this way, then you can’t do it that way. It’s too easy. One of my former colleagues used to write on his AP 12 students’ papers this simple command: “Do better.” Exactly. Don’t be lazy; do better.

4.) Writers can’t simply rehash what they’ve already said. I know…written conclusions are hard. They just are. There’s no formula I know of for a good one. They take a little bit of agony each time. At some point in middle school, I thought I’d found a way around this. I devised a formula for conclusions that I thought no English teacher could resist. I ended every paper with something to the effect of, “And that is why [insert author’s name here] remains one of the most important figures in [English/American] literature.” I thought it was foolproof: I gave the writer some cheap praise and boom! Done! Isn’t that what teachers want, even more than one of those slick, plastic paper covers? (Please don’t use those things. They are icky.) Thank goodness my teacher in eleventh grade told me it wasn’t going to fly anymore. She forced me to “do better.”

While I believe that people can be taught to be competent writers even if they don’t like writing, the fact remains that writing is an art, not a science. I don’t know of any better way to do it than to just work really hard until it’s right. And with enough practice (and the aforementioned agony), you’ll develop a sense of when that is.



3 Responses to “Four Things Public Speakers Can Do, But Writers Can’t”

  • So now I know what you are thinking during my speeches (sermons) every Sunday! Seriously, I think your observations about writing are correct. Too many students I see writing try to “write like they speak.” Though an approach seems natural, it does not translate to effective written communication.

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