Speak for the Ear

As William Norwood Brigance once said, “A speech is not an essay on its hind legs.” We must prepare a speech for the ear, not the eye. Here are some ways to do that.

Keep sentences short. It is hard to follow with the ear if you have long, complicated sentences. This was one of the criteria for those who helped write John Kennedy’s speeches that produced quotes like, “Ich bin cin Berliner” in his visit to what was at the time a divided city. The quotations best remembered from speeches are usually those that are characterized by uncomplicated sentences.

Next, keep the word choice simple. If there is a choice between a two-syllable word and a three-syllable word, use the two-syllable:  the shorter the better. The Sermon on the Mount, one of the great speeches of all time, has words like “salt,” “light,” “rock,” and “sand” as key terms in developing ideas. Winston Churchill’s tribute to the Royal Air Force was simply, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Third, answer the “W” questions in developing content for a speech. This motivates you as the speaker to be specific and concrete. This is a crucial point because what you say must be instantly clear to the audience. Unlike a book or essay, where you can go back and reread the material or look up words on your dictionary app, a speech must make sense immediately. One of the best ways to do this is to include material that answers the questions “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?”  “Why?”

Fourth, use description in developing ideas for a presentation. We think in pictures. If I mention “river,” you think of a specific river. If I say “road,” you think of a particular road. To develop complete pictures, and to help the listener understand your meaning of an idea, use description. Paint the picture for the listener by using the specific rather than the general. Your goal should be for the listener to have the same picture in his or her mind as you do in yours. If something is not specific enough, audience members lose interest. For example, if you were to refer to a “truck,” the audience would begin wondering what kind of truck you were talking about. Was it a tractor-trailer, a pickup truck, a utility truck, or a green recycling truck?  If you mention a blue Ford pickup truck, however, the audience knows exactly what you are referring to, accepts it, and continues to listen.

Finally, develop a segment of your presentation that relates directly to your audience. Include the name of the group to which you are speaking, and mention someone in the group to illustrate one of your points. If a previous speaker at the conference has discussed a point related to yours, refer to it as you develop your own unique application. Use job-related examples from the professions represented in the audience. Make a reference to a part of the physical surroundings of the room in which you are speaking, or draw a comparison like, “The pool was about as long as this room. “Any of these inclusions can trigger the spontaneity of the moment and make it easy on the ear.

Other factors will certainly contribute to the success of your speech. These suggestions, however, will help insure that your presentation is both easy on the ear and effective.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Contact Steve today for priority scheduling! (859) 441-6520 or email info@SBoyd.com

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