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A free E-zine from Communication Excellence Institute, dedicated to improving communication in the professional workplace.

In our coaching over many years, Jan and I have observed a phenomenon that appears in many people’s presentations that subtly undercuts their credibility and audience rapport. They’ve got good PowerPoints, valuable content, and a well organized presentation. But when they deliver it, it somehow comes off canned and boring, giving the impression that it’s been memorized. If you've ever gotten feedback like this, let me ask you this question…

Are You Speaking Like a Book?
Vol. 7, No. 1

We're all very conscientious when it comes to preparing and delivering a business presentation, and that's a good thing! But taken to extremes, conscientiousness can lead to an over-reliance on the text of your presentation. Since the text is obviously in written form, your notes can often follow traditional administrative and bureaucratic models with their stilted vocabulary, long sentences, and officious phraseology. Add to this, the tendency we all experience of being seduced into reading our notes verbatim, or even worse, reading our slides word-for-word, and you have a recipe for a truly boring talk.

As products of the American educational system and its reliance on traditional English stylistics, we seldom are clear on the distinction between oral and written English. When our clients get clear on how different spoken English is from its written counterpart and craft their presentations in spoken English, they're amazed at how much easier it is to deliver their talks and how receptive their listeners are to them.

So now let's take a look at some of those critical differences between oral and written English.

The first indicator that a talk is being delivered in written English is when you hear a presenter choose words that you don’t hear that often in ordinary conversation. In healthcare organizations, for instance, we are amused to hear how often the word “individual” is used for “person,” “employee,” “manager,” “doctor,” or “nurse.” You’ll hear a word like “indicated” or “stated” in place of “mentioned” or “said.” You might hear the phrase “in error” or “erroneous” instead of “wrong” or “inaccurate.” So putting it all together, the presenter might say:

“The individual in question indicated that the cost projections were in error.”

Our presenter might just as easily have said:

“The manager said that the cost projections were wrong,” which is more like what we would hear in everyday speech.

After all, what “individual” wouldn’t prefer to be known as a “person,” “colleague,” or “professional,” or by his or her occupational title (“lawyer,” “doctor,” “CPA,” etc.)?

The second clue is that the presenter, when practicing his or her presentation on video, will use the exact phraseology over and over for any given slide or portion of the talk. In speech, we convey ideas or concepts repeatedly without using the same expressions over and over. A presenter might explain a slide like this:

“We have endeavored to portray the data in graph form to reveal the sharp decline in profits between profit centers,”

then repeat these exact words verbatim on each retake. A truly oral-based version of this on one take might sound like:

“Here you’ll see the data presented in graphs. Notice the sharp decline in profits between profit centers.”


“What we’ve done here is try to give you a view of the data as a graph so you can see the big profit drop among the profit centers.”

The same content should be delivered a little differently each time, to keep the talk fresh.

And third, written language often suffers from unnecessary or repetitive words. To go back to our cost projection situation above, an excessively wordy written sentence might read:

“Due to the fact that the numerical entities are not in mutual agreement, the consensus of all involved parties is that the problem does not lend itself to a readily identifiable solution.”

This, of course, isn’t even good written English. The speaker (or writer) probably should just say or write:

“Because the numbers don’t match, everyone agrees that we can’t solve the problem easily.”

A talk given in written English tends to be a continuous river of words with few, if any, pauses and LOTS of conjunctions, especially “and,” “uh,” and “so.” Two “written” sentences in a presentation could be rendered like this (note the absence of punctuation marks):

“We’ve attempted to render the project parameters in PERT format they are most easily seen that way so we can represent quite a bit of information in a small space uh or on a single computer screen.”

This is a monster sentence! In oral English, pauses are inserted at the end of clauses or sentences for dramatic effect and to help the listener absorb the modules of thought. In short, you need to remember what the period at the end of a sentence is for—PAUSE!!

But now let’s take a look at some characteristics of oral English that make for a much livelier presentation.

Oral English is highly repetitive. In fact, spoken language is at least 100% redundant (There, I just proved it!). Let's take another rewrite of our profit center sentence above:

“We’ve tried to give you a view of the data as a graph form so you can see the big profit drop among the profit centers.”

Watch how much more "punch" repetition can have, as in this sentence:

“The graph really highlights how profits tumbled over the last year. Our company can’t sustain many more drops like that!”

The truth is, if you really want the audience to remember a key point, you need to say it at least three times.

Spoken language travels in short sentences and fragments. Dependent clauses and elaborate constructions are rarely heard. In speech, we’d break apart our last sentence to read:

“The graph really makes the point. Profits dropped last year big time! Our company can’t keep having more years like that! Make sense? Let’s go on.”

Spoken English employs a simpler vocabulary. Most spoken words are only one and two syllables long. “Modification” (5 syllables) becomes “Change” (1 syllable). "Demonstrate" (3 syllables) becomes "Show" (1 syllable).“Subsequently” (4 syllables) becomes “After” (2 syllables). “Appropriate” (4 syllables) becomes “Right" (1 syllable). Not only do these shorter word have more impact, but they sound a lot less stuffy, too.

In speech, we use more contractions than in writing. “We’d,” “you’ll,” “haven’t,” “they’ve,” and “wouldn’t” are far more common than their full variants.

Is there a place for written English in a presentation? Yes! When there is information that must be quoted word-for-word, such as direct quotations, statistics, or dates, prepare a separate sheet with that specific information on it.

To recap (since oral English is 100% redundant!), here are the main points to remember to make your presentation truly oral:

  • Use simple conversational words, phrases, and fragments.
  • Think in ideas and concepts more than words to avoid exact repetition.
  • Speak in short sentences (5-8 words per sentence).
  • Pause between sentences for dramatic effect and comprehension.
  • Use contractions.
  • If possible, don’t write out your speech. Sooner set down a group of bullet points. If you must write out the entire speech, be sure to compose it in oral, not written, English.

But the best advice of all in making presentations is the old homely expression KISS (Keep it Short and Sweet).

Yours in good communication,

Jan and Neal Palmer

P.S. If you’d like a simple way to liven up your presentation and implement the advice here, see our PSSP RSVP: How to Turn a Boring Speaker into an Interesting One in Ten Minutes or Less! at PSSP Vol. 1, Num. 4


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