Twain’s revelation about writing and speaking still good today

When legendary author Mark Twain was around 70 years old, he started dictating his recollections to his stenographer – and discovered the essential difference between writing and speaking.

He explained it like this: “The moment you pick up a pen you begin to lose the spontaneity of the personal relation, which contains the very essence of interest. With shorthand dictation one can talk as if he were at his own dinner-table — always a most inspiring place.”

Twain realized that speaking his thoughts, rather than writing them down, made them more natural and conversational. What most of us don’t understand, and what Twain discovered late in life, is that writing and speaking are very different communication delivery systems.

And yet too often we treat them as interchangeable – with disastrous results for speakers.

Most people, preparing for a speech or presentation, instinctively begin by writing. We default to the delivery system that works for words that are to be read by the eyes. And then we wonder why the words sound clumsy and stilted when we try to read them aloud.

The truth, as Mark Twain discovered, is that we use very different vocabularies and sentence structures when we speak. So it makes sense that if our words ultimately are to be spoken aloud, we must generate them through our mouths, and edit them with our ears.

How do you begin preparing your presentation or speech? If you are like most people I work with, you sit at your computer, or grab pen and paper, and stare at the blank screen or page. You think.

Then the thoughts come pouring out of the brain, race down the arms to the fingers, get tap-tap-tapped into the keyboard, and pop up on the screen as sentences to be processed by the eyes. Your eyes send messages to the brain, the brain evaluates the words and sends instructions for changes to the fingers, and the words get shuffled round the screen.   You carry on like this, silently, until finally – hours, days, or weeks later – you finish.

Stop writing; start talking

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Or maybe you don’t prepare this way. Maybe you create your slides and then speak, using each slide as a guide. Again, you are relying on your eyes to prepare your presentation. Either way, I believe this is a waste of your precious time. You are doing things backwards.

The process of writing the words bypasses two vital organs. The words are never tested on the lips. And the content is judged purely on how it looks to the eye, rather than how it will sound in the ears of the listener.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with writing out a script – if people are going to read what you wrote. This is the way we all learned to write essays and letters. It works if you’re writing a book. But it doesn’t work when you’re preparing a speech or presentation.