39. Spoken not Written


Four score and seven years ago…

SPOKEN ENGLISH IS NOT the same as written English. If you sit down to write your story, you are most likely going to end up with proper written English that when read aloud, will sound like you are reading a storybook or script, or worse yet, sound like you are a politician delivering a stump speech.

In all the chapters since warning you not to write an essay, I’ve been careful to not use the word “write” when talking about your story. So how do you craft a story without writing written English? Here are three techniques:

Take notes

Write an outline or to jot down notes. No full sentences. Tell the story from those notes. Iterate by editing the notes. Record the results on occasion to hear what it sounds like to the audience.

If it helps, transcribe the whole talk, edit it, and take new notes. The key is to not have any full sentences written down, avoiding the style and structure of spoken English and avoiding the trap of worrying about saying specific words and phrases.

Even when stories don’t start with this method, I’ve seen this used in the final stages of fine tuning and memorization, to help a speaker focusing on conveying the concepts instead of the words.

Speak it out

I craft stories by walking. I tell the story to the sidewalks and the trees. To start, I let it flow out, wherever the story wants to go. I babble and stutter and play with ideas. Then I iterate those thoughts, reordering the concepts and pruning down the words.

Along the way I’ll try variations. In fact, for weeks I’ll rarely deliver the same speech twice, tossing in new phrases, tossing out whole sections, searching for a more compelling way to convey the same thoughts and feelings.

When I feel it is getting good, I’ll record it, transcribe it, and edit it down further. I’ll then read it back out a few times to hear those edits aloud and feel if the words fit my tongue. I fine tune the last iterations verbally, then practice and practice and practice until if flows out smoothly and effortlessly.

I craft my talks while walking to and from work, twice a day, every day for a few weeks. I’ll work during halftimes on weekends, to squeeze in more iterations.

For me, the end results either sound like a college professor delivering a lecture (I teach MBA candidates and like to tell stories that teach a lesson) or sound like someone telling an unscripted story. One example of the latter is my half of Africa Business Radio’s Demo Day talk.

Write in spoken English

The most common method people use is to write the talk down as a written story. And despite how many times I warn people that spoken English doesn’t sound like written English, their first draft is often in written English.

Spoken English has long, run on sentences, with a lot of connecting words and phrases, and commas and ellipse… which represent the various lengths of pauses that go into delivering a story that captures the audience. Written-down “SPOKEN” English has words in all caps or bold to remind the speaker which words to stress, as written English has no punctuation for stress.

Scripts written out as a company story end looking a lot like a script for a play, with many short paragraphs, intertwined with stage directions:

This is a Love Story <pause> between bees, farmers and family.

It all began two years ago with a Plague and Sting.

Coffee rust struck Nicaragua. <short-pause> I’m a fifth generation coffee producer and a plague like this hadn’t happened in my lifetime.

Coffee rust can lower yields up to 70%. While my family farm was fortunate enough to afford the fungicide needed to battle the plague, it was devastating to all the small scale coffee farmers, who are the majority coffee growers in Nicaragua.

My mother asked me to check on our plants.

I remember walking for hours through the mountainous green fields of our farm, and I remember noticing the honeybees acting strange. I found a massive swarm tucked away in a tree. Which made me curious… maybe a bit too curious…

First the plague, and then the sting. <long pause>

When I got home I started researching bees to make sure my face was not permanently inflamed… It wasn’t. But my heart was.

While this is the most common method for crafting a story, it is also the most difficult to deliver in a manner that doesn’t sound like you are reading a script. Watch the Jicote pitch to hear the above story and compare the delivery of that delivery to Soji and I.

Sounding unscripted

It is possible to sound unscripted while starting with a script. To do that you need to do two things. First, you need a week to practice the talk at least fifty times. Out loud! Second, you need to not worry about what words you actually say, focusing on the ideas conveyed by each sentence rather than the specific words written down in the script.

This is why the first two methods work better, as there are no specific words written anywhere that you have to speak. This may sound trivial, but hundreds of times I’ve seen speakers practicing their talks, angry at themselves for saying “grow” instead of “expand” despite there being no difference in meaning between the those words, or any other words they were substituting.

To help with that, I often suggest to scriptwriters that they use the script to make notes, then practice off of the notes. That way they throw away their specific written word choices and free themselves to say the words that come to mind.


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