Use language that’s written to be said

Phillip Khan-Panni

Every once in a while I come across a phrase that says exactly what I have in mind, with all the economy and beauty of poetry, and if it comes from someone else, I borrow it — but acknowledge the source.  For example Peggy Noonan, speechwriter to US Presidents, once said,

“You must be able to say the sentences you write.”

So simple, yet so profound.  If you remember that sentence every time you sit down to write a speech or presentation, you’ll make a big improvement. I say: “The text that’s written to be said is different from the text that’s written to be read.” So write for the ear.


The text for a speech should have these 6 characteristics:

1.  It must be your own

2.  It must be easy to speak

3.  It must be easy to understand

4.  It must make mental pictures

5.  It must have energy

6.  It must contain memorable phrases

I shall deal with the last item on another occasion, but let’s tackle each of the other points as they fall.

1.  Make it your own

Your speech must be as close as possible to your normal conversational style, minus the verbal crutches, slang and swearing that might pepper your conversation with mates in the pub.

2.  Make it easy to speak

Try saying this sentence out loud:

If you are faced with a potentially hostile audience, if appropriate ask the person who invited you to indicate the audience’s opinion of you and your topic, as well as the names of any especially troublesome participants.

The individual words are not unusual, but the way they are grouped together makes the sentence unwieldy.  Also, the meaning is unclear.

3. Make it easy to understand

Remember, you will be speaking at 120-150 words a minute, or so, having thought out what you want to say.  Your audience will hear your words just once.  At 120-150 words a minute.  Every minute.  On and on.  Until you stop.  Why not meet them halfway and make it easy to understand what you are driving at?

4.  Make mental pictures

Avoid negative phrasing and abstract terms.  They do not make pictures in the minds of your listeners. Consider the difference between these two:

  • He was always busy, persistently acquiring knowledge and modifying his behaviour according to the mores of each new discipline, and benefiting from them in the process.
  • Like a tireless bumble bee sipping nectar from flower after flower, he soaked up knowledge from every possible source, growing and developing as he did so.

5.  Give it energy

Since the purpose of your speech must be to bring about change in the thinking, attitude or behaviour of your listeners, you must be persuasive, and that can only be achieved if you speak with energy. You cannot expect to achieve your purpose if your words imply, “Here it is.  Take it or leave it.”

6.   Deliver memorable phrases

The listening public expects pithy, memorable phrases that work almost like slogans. Advertising copywriters have recognised this trend, and they create brand awareness through memorable (if sometimes meaningless) slogans.

  • Go to work on an egg
  • It’s good to talk
  • Beware of Jeep imitations

Politicians’ speechwriters are strong on memorable catchphrases such as:

  • The pound in your pocket
  • You’ve never had it so good
  • This lady’s not for turning

In summary, make your text about an idea that belongs to you, is easy to say and easy on the ear, with word pictures and some memorable phrases.

How can I be worth hearing?

Phillip Khan-Panni

Do you make presentations? Of course you do, whether it’s to sell a product or service or just to propose an idea. Here’s a simple 8-point guide to getting it right.

First, let me urge you to lose the idea that such presentations are to impart information.  If that is your objective, send an email.  It’s quicker, cheaper, more efficient.

The true purpose of a presentation – any presentation – is to bring about change.  Change in the thinking, attitude or behaviour of those present.  So here’s a brief outline of the essentials of making a presentation that’s worth hearing.

There are eight important ingredients in a successful presentation, indicated by my acronym, OH AM I SAD (which you will be if you don’t do something like this).

O: Outcome or Objective.  Start with the end in view.  What do you want people to do when you have finished?  Write it down.

H: Hook.  Sometimes called the Grabber.  It’s something that you do or say to grab attention at the start, in much the same way as the Headline on a press advertisement.  It says, “Stop! Pay attention, this is for YOU!”

A:  Audience.  Make it directly relevant to the group you are addressing, taking account of their needs, interests and anxieties.  If you have a multi-cultural audience, keep the language simple and try to avoid too much use of metaphor.  

M: Message.  It’s not your information that matters, but rather its significance.  Tell them what they should think about what you are saying, and how it will affect them. Summarise your message in a single sentence that you want people to carry away and remember.  Write it down and make it the focus of your presentation.

I: Interest.  You have their attention, and you are focused on where you want to lead them. Maintain the flow and keep their attention by relating everything to their interests.  For every fact you put across, answer the “So what?” question.

S: Structure.  It is essential to follow a structure, both to keep yourself on track and to enable your listeners to follow you.  A simple structure, such as Past, Present, Future, will be easy for them to remember and reconstruct your presentation.

A:  Action.  What did you want them to do after hearing you?  Make it clear.  Don’t expect them to work it out for themselves.

D: Delivery.  Pay attention to the way in which you deliver your presentation.  Spend time rehearsing, listen to a recording of your presentation and make sure you are not boring, then make an effort to be heard clearly.  Every presentation is a performance, and no one has the right to be boring.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll be worth hearing.