Have you ever heard the adage that communication is only seven percent verbal and 93 percent nonverbal? If so, I recommend you ignore it.
Excluding pure entertainment, the objective of most speeches is to convey information, or to promote or defend a point of view. Certain tools, such as vocal variety and body language, can aid this process. But they communicate only emphasis or emotion.
If your words are incapable of getting your message across, then no amount of gestures or tonal variety will do it for you. Thus, when preparing a speech, your first objective must always be to carefully structure your information and look for the best words or phrases to express what you want to say.
This is why the Toastmasters Competent Communication manual devotes the first four assignments to organizing the speech itself, including a chapter specifically on the importance of words in conveying meaning and feeling. Only in projects five and six does the manual cover body language and vocal variety.
But if writing your speech is the key to success, how should you go about it?
The problem with most articles and books on good writing is that they are – well, poorly written. This is because they concentrate on the use of language and not on the fundamentals of writing itself. The principles of good writing are few, and they’re easy to understand; all too often, the absolute essentials are buried under an avalanche of verbiage about technique.
For example, I recently searched the Internet for “clear writing” and came up with a list of “10 principles of clear writing.” Each principle offers good advice; however, the list has a fundamental fault: These 10 principles are not really principles at all, but rather tips and techniques.
What’s the difference? Tips and techniques tell you what to do; principles tell you why you are doing it. Understanding why you are doing something, i.e., the benefits you will gain, helps ensure that you will do it consistently. Too often, when we are told only what to do, we follow the instructions half-heartedly, inconsistently or not at all, with disastrous results.
During my senior year at the University of California, Los Angeles, I tutored writing to earn much-needed cash. One day, a first-year student showed me a note from her professor that said, “Young lady, I advise you either to leave my class immediately or prepare to fail it.” I determined that she had been misapplying a fundamental writing principle in her class work, so I explained it to her and had her do a few simple exercises to be certain she understood it. By the end of the term, the expected “F” shot up to a gratifying “B.”
This was not an isolated case. In my experience, when students have difficulty writing, it’s generally because they are: 1) unfamiliar with a fundamental principle, 2) inconsistently applying it, 3) improperly applying it or 4) not applying it at all.
The same thing occurs with speechwriting. During my 40-year career in journalism, marketing and communications, I have been continually appalled by how poorly top business executives, academics, researchers and other clearly intelligent people express themselves.
The Principles of Success
Some years ago I analyzed this discouraging phenomenon and defined three key principles that underlie virtually every kind of nonfiction writing as well as public speaking. For added strength and substance, I cast the principles in the form of semi-mathematical formulas As formulas, these principles not only tell you what to do, they also tell you why you are doing it and how to go about it correctly.
In fact, these principles act like tests for effectiveness. If your speech fails these tests, it must be revised. If it passes them, then – and only then – should you look at the other aspects of public speaking to make your already good speech even better.
Learn these principles, the formulas and the tests to better control the words in your speeches:
1. Clarity – Being clear is not a matter of personal appreciation. Do you find your text clear? You should – after all, you wrote it. But how can you be certain that it will be clear to others? According to the clarity principle, to be clear you must follow this formula:
Cl = EDE
• Emphasize what is of key importance. Before you start writing you must first determine the main ideas that you want your readers or listeners to take away from your text. This is not always easy. It’s far simpler to say that everything is of key importance, so you put in everything you have. However, unless you do the work of defining what you really want your audience to know, the audience won’t get your point. They will simply get lost in your verbiage and either give up or never realize what they were supposed to have learned.
• De-emphasize what is of secondary importance. Next, as you write your text, you must be certain to de-emphasize what is of less importance. Why? Because if you really want your readers or listeners to recognize and retain the key ideas, you don’t want them getting lost in the details. Details (information of secondary importance) explain and support the key ideas. They must never overwhelm them.
• Eliminate what is of no importance. Finally, you must ruthlessly eliminate what is of no importance. Why? Because any information that adds nothing to explaining and supporting the key ideas will tend to obscure them, which is exactly the opposite of what you want.
2. Conciseness – In order to be concise, your text must follow this formula:
Co = LS
According to the formula, your writing should be:
• As long as necessary – “As long as necessary” means covering all the key ideas you identified under “clarity,” and all the information of secondary importance needed to explain and support them. Note that nothing is said here about the number of words, because it is irrelevant. If it takes 800 words to be “as long as necessary,” then 800 words must be used. If it takes 1,800 words, this is alright, too.
• As short as possible – “As short as possible” means staying as close as you can to the minimum. Not because people prefer short text; in the abstract, the terms “long” and “short” have no meaning. The important point is: All words beyond the minimum tend to damage clarity. Subconsciously, readers will continually try to understand why those words are there, and will continually fail because they serve no purpose.
3. Density – Density is a less familiar concept than clarity and conciseness, but it is equally important. According to the density principle, your text should follow this formula:
D = PL
This means dense writing should contain:
• Precise information – Using precise information rather than wishy-washy weasel words aids clarity. For example, if you say it is a “hot” day, what do you mean? Mention a temperature and everyone will better understand your meaning. Using precise information also builds the audience’s confidence in your knowledge of the subject.
• Logically linked – Precise facts – data – are insufficient alone. To be meaningful, data must be organized to create “information.” Apply these two important tests when converting data into information:
Data Test One: Relevance – Is a particular piece of data really needed? Any information that fails to aid understanding or promote audience confidence should be rigorously eliminated.
Data Test Two: Misconceptions – The logical link between data must be made explicit to prevent the audience from coming to false conclusions. To ensure that a logical link is clear, place the two pieces of data as close to each other as possible, preferably right next to each other. When data are widely separated, their logical link is masked.
Now, the 10 Tips and Techniques
Keeping these true principles – clarity, conciseness and density – firmly in mind allows us to re-evaluate the following oft-quoted “10 tips of clear writing,” thereby making them more meaningful and useful.
• Keep sentences short. This is usually interpreted to mean an average sentence length of 15 to 18 words. Readers and listeners could handle longer sentences; however, when the length rises above this average, sentences are likely to be poorly constructed, thereby damaging clarity.
But remember, an average sentence is 15 to 18 words. Don’t shun longer sentences. A well-constructed long sentence is often clearer than two or more shorter ones. Why? Because the longer sentence might better show the logical linkage among the various elements, which often is lost by splitting it apart.
• Prefer the simple to the complex. If the precise word is long, don’t be hesitant to use it, because not using it would damage clarity. On the other hand, if a shorter word would do just as well, choose it. For example, dog is usually better than canine, and change works better than modification.
• Prefer the familiar word. This is a variation of the second point. If you have a choice between two words, use the one that most people are likely to recognize. For example, daily is more commonly used than quotidian.
• Avoid unnecessary words. Be concise.
• Use active verbs. Active verbs tend to enhance clarity; conversely, too many passive verbs tend to damage it.
• Write the way you speak. This is a useful technique, but don’t take it literally. When we speak, we generally use simpler vocabulary and sentence structures than when we write. Writing the way you speak is a good way to produce a first draft. However, when we speak, our sentence structures are often confused and our vocabulary imprecise. These faults must be rigorously corrected in the second or third drafts.
This is even more important for writing a speech than writing a document. In a printed text, if people don’t understand something, they have the luxury of reading it again. If you say something they don’t understand, it’s there, and then it’s gone.
• Use terms your audience can picture. In other words, follow the density principle. When making a statement, be sure to support it with concrete data.
• Tie in with your readers’ experience. Again, this is about density, about using precise information. The words you choose should be compatible with your readers’ experience. If you need to use a word that’s new to your readers, define it the first time you use it. If it’s really key, define it again later on.
Also be wary of words that look familiar but change meaning in the context of your subject. Example: Insult is medical jargon for an injury or trauma. Talking about an insult to the heart without first explaining the medical meaning of the word might leave your audience scratching their heads.
• Make full use of variety. If you conscientiously apply the principles of clarity, conciseness and density, you will almost automatically introduce variety of sentence length and structure into your presentation.
Avoid introducing too much vocabulary, though. Constantly changing terminology for the sake of variety affects clarity. If several words mean essentially the same thing, pick one or two of them and forget the others.
• Write to express, not to impress. The purpose of most nonfiction writing and public speaking is to inform or instruct. In fact, the better you write your speech, the less people are likely to notice. Keep your audience’s attention by focusing the speech on a message rather than a series of facts.
So there you have it: a list of 10 writing tips and how they relate to the three fundamental principles of writing. With these principles – clarity, conciseness and density – you can make your speeches shine.
Philip Yaffe, CC, a member of the Claddagh Toastmasters in Brussels, Belgium, is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal who teaches persuasive communication techniques. This article is based on his new book, The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking Like a Professional. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.