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April 2024
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Writing for the Spoken Word

Loosen the rules and listen for cadence.

By Bill Brown, DTM

An illustration of a toolbox

Click the play button for extra tips on improving the cadence of your speech.

When I grew up, I had an English class every year in school. I was well educated in writing reports and compositions. On the other hand, I had only one semester in public speaking. My training was focused on the written word. Perhaps yours was too.

As an adult, I worked many years in the field of voiceovers, where I read scripts written by others. During that time, I observed that there are three types of writers: those good at writing for the spoken word, those good at writing for the written word and those who are just plain bad writers. But far too many times, the scripts crafted by the written-word writers were the hardest to read aloud. Why? Because they just didn’t flow. They had no cadence, no regular beat.

The written word and the spoken word are different. And the rules we learn for writing may not apply to speaking. The spoken word is closer to a song than an essay. Think, for a moment, of your favorite song. It has a certain beat to it, doesn’t it? That, in part, is why you like it.

I was working on a speech recently where I wrote the phrase “principles, perspectives and paradigms.” The phrase is fine. It is a triad, it has alliteration and each word has three syllables. Yet it feels awkward to say. That’s because the accent pattern is jumbled. The accent is on the first syllable in “principles,” the second syllable in “perspectives” and the first ­syllable again in “paradigms.”

I then switched the phrase to “principles, paradigms and perspectives.” Now the first and second words both begin with an accent on the first syllable. The soft initial accent of the third word is cushioned by the “and,” so it gives the impression of following the pattern.
The phrase now rolls nicely off the tongue. It has a cadence.

Sometimes sentences and long phrases have holes in them. I once heard a speaker talking about a dog, and he said something like, “He was a golden that wouldn’t swim and a retriever that wouldn’t.” The second half of that sentence is certainly creative. And, in writing, it looks clever. But it creates a hole when spoken. It feels like something is missing.

“The spoken word is closer to a song than an essay.”

It would be better to say, “He was a golden that wouldn’t swim and a retriever that wouldn’t retrieve.” The first phrase sets up a pattern and, hence, an expectation. If you break that expectation, you divert your audience’s attention away from your message.

You might be thinking, “Bill, you can’t use the same word twice in the same sentence.”

Au contraire. That is a rule made for the written word. You can get away with such repetition in a speech if it’s needed for either cadence or clarity. If, however, using “retrieve” twice still bothers you, a thesaurus can help.

Another written-word rule that doesn’t necessarily apply in the spoken realm will shock many grammarians around the Toastmasters world. Yes, you really can ­begin a sentence with and, now, but and even the dreaded so. (No, no, say it isn’t so!)

Richard Dowis, in my favorite book on speechwriting, The Lost Art of the Great Speech, writes, “You need not feel self-conscious with beginning a sentence with and or but when it seems right.”

Let me be clear: You should not begin your speech with the word so. And you should not begin virtually every sentence with that conjunction (or any other, for that matter). But sometimes the sentence cadence demands an extra sound. In those cases, conjunctions are not filler words that fill holes where there should be silence; instead, they are transition words, filling holes in the rhythm of a sentence.

Unfortunately, cadence is more of an art than a science. Sometimes I construct phrases with an emphasis in mind. ­Usually, however, I go by feel. I just sense when something sounds right.

To hone this sense, pay attention to how each phrase rolls off your tongue. You will find some sounding awkward, some just OK and some pure delights to say. Get rid of the first. Add more of the third. That is when speaking gets fun.

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