Essays On Writing And Speaking

5 (That is essentially a bad style which seems as if the person writing it never stopped for breath, nor gave himself a moment's pause, but strove to make up by redundancy and fluency for want of choice and correctness of expression.)

6 (I have omitted to dwell on some other differences of body and mind that often prevent the same person form shining in both capacities of speaker and writer. There are natural impediments to public speaking, such as want of a strong voice, and steady nerves. A high authority of the present day (Mr Canning) has thought this a matter of so much importance, that he goes so far as even to let it affect the constitution of Parliament, and conceives that gentleman who have not bold foreheads, and brazen lungs, but modest pretensions and patriotic views, would be allowed to creep into the great assembly of the nation through the avenue of close boroughs, and not be called upon "to face the storms of the hustings." In this point of view, Stentor was a man of genius, and a noisy jack-pudding may cut a considerable figure in the "Political House that Jack built." I fancy Mr C. Wynne is the only person in the kingdom who has fully made up his mind that a total defect of voice is the most necessary qualification for a Speaker in the House of Commons!)

March 2012

I'm not a very good speaker. I say "um" a lot. Sometimes I have to pause when I lose my train of thought. I wish I were a better speaker. But I don't wish I were a better speaker like I wish I were a better writer. What I really want is to have good ideas, and that's a much bigger part of being a good writer than being a good speaker.

Having good ideas is most of writing well. If you know what you're talking about, you can say it in the plainest words and you'll be perceived as having a good style. With speaking it's the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker.

I first noticed this at a conference several years ago. There was another speaker who was much better than me. He had all of us roaring with laughter. I seemed awkward and halting by comparison. Afterward I put my talk online like I usually do. As I was doing it I tried to imagine what a transcript of the other guy's talk would be like, and it was only then I realized he hadn't said very much.

Maybe this would have been obvious to someone who knew more about speaking, but it was a revelation to me how much less ideas mattered in speaking than writing. [1]

A few years later I heard a talk by someone who was not merely a better speaker than me, but a famous speaker. Boy was he good. So I decided I'd pay close attention to what he said, to learn how he did it. After about ten sentences I found myself thinking "I don't want to be a good speaker."

Being a really good speaker is not merely orthogonal to having good ideas, but in many ways pushes you in the opposite direction. For example, when I give a talk I usually write it out beforehand. I know that's a mistake; I know delivering a


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *