An ‘essay on its hind legs’ is not a speech

‘A speech is not an essay’ is the title of a blog a client thought we’d be interested in. We were… so interested we want to share it with you.

We were hooked from the first line: ‘Reading an essay to an audience can bore them to tears’. It’s something we could have said in one of our presentation skills workshops. In fact, it IS something we say – over and over.

The article appeared in the Harvard Business Review. It was written by John Coleman, coauthor of the book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders.

He began by recalling sitting in the audience for a lecture by a world expert in his field. “This renowned academic had mastered the written form but mistakenly presumed that the same style could be used at a podium in the context of an hour-long public address. 

“He treated the audience to exceptional content that was almost impossible to follow — monotone, flat, read from a script, and delivered from behind a tall podium.

“He would have done well to heed the words of communication professor Bob Frank: ‘A speech is not an essay on its hind legs’.” 

Sadly, a lot of people prepare for an important presentation or speech by sitting at their computer staring at a screen, working in complete silence, judging the content by the way it looks on the page.

That’s such a crazy, hopeless model for building something that has to be spoken aloud. Sitting in silence, watching the sentences form on the screen, is how we write an essay. 

It’s when you take that essay and try to make it sound conversational that you run into the ‘essay on its hind legs’ syndrome. It doesn’t work. It’s the reason so many smart people struggle to connect with their audience. 

It’s like buying a really nice car – and then wondering why it won’t fly like a plane. It wasn’t designed for the purpose you have in mind.

Here’s the blog in the Harvard Business Review our client shared with us. There’s a lot of great advice in the article. Here are a couple of snippets:

  • Simplify: the spoken word needs to be short, sweet and to the point;
  • Signpost the journey: make sure the audience knows exactly where you are leading them;
  • Stories work better than statistics: audiences love and remember stories;
  • Use pauses and emphasis: performance is key to helping the audience process your content.

So remember, no more essays – unless you are actually writing to your audience.

Our e-book TalkitOut: From Fears to Cheers, is packed with advice on how to create a speech or presentation that really captures the way you speak. It’s available from our online store.