One of the questions most frequently asked by aspiring speakers is, “What action can I immediately take to improve my skills?” What they don’t know is, asking that question is like asking which exercise will help you become more physically fit. Depending on your ultimate goal, there can be several right answers. About three or four months ago, I decided to have some fun with my responses so I challenged myself to come up with a different one every time that question was posed.
At a social event last week, a woman whom I had met for the first time asked me “the question” and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by my response. I said, “The first thing you should do is learn the difference between writing for the eye and writing for the ear.” I went on to explain the two primary reasons that a presentation written for the eye, meaning that its sole intent is to be read, can safely include complex words and compound sentences.
- The information is absorbed at the reader’s pace.
- The reader can go back and reread anything that is unclear.
On the other hand, a presentation that is written for the ear, meaning that it is intended to be audibly consumed, should be constructed of simple words and sentences for two reasons:
- The presentation is delivered at the speaker’s pace.
- The listener cannot stop, slow down or rewind the speaker if they happen to miss a critical point.
Ultimately, your audiences will judge you in two ways: how well they understand you and how you made them feel. That being the case, you should make it a point to use plain language every time you speak. Now, you may be thinking, Dez, what exactly do you mean by plain language? A great example is this very article! I seriously doubt that you’ve had to “look up” any of the words or reread a sentence because you didn’t understand it. Additionally, the tone here is light and conversational, exactly what you need to educate, motivate, entertain or persuade your audience.
Below is an excerpt from one of my favorite books, Mastery, by Robert Greene. Obviously, because it is a book excerpt, it was written for the eye. Immediately below the book excerpt I’ve rewritten the content as if it were going to be delivered in a presentation for the ear.
(As written for the eye)
Greene notes that “Establishing your differences with the mentor is an important part of your self-development, whether he is of the good or bad parent type . . . The mentor, or father figure, gives you a standard from which you can deviate and establish your own identity. You internalize the important and relevant parts of their knowledge and you apply the knife to what has no bearing on your life.”
(Written for the ear)
One of the rarely discussed topics involving mentorship is what to do when you get to a fork in the road where your personal beliefs and aspirations no longer align with those of your mentor. As Robert Greene, widely respected author of the book, Mastery, suggested and with which I totally agree, it’s perfectly acceptable to part ways with your mentor and blaze your own trail.
Hopefully, you were able to easily sniff out the plain language I chose to convey the same point as the author. A great way to run a plain language check on your content is to look for three-syllable words and compound sentences and find ways to simplify them without changing their original meaning. In some instances, complexity is unavoidable, which means you have to be twice as diligent in your pursuit of simplicity.
I fully appreciate that the idea of dumbing down your presentation may feel counterintuitive but remember, it’s not about you. It’s about them! Your audience doesn’t care that you memorized the entire Webster’s Dictionary; their main goal is to learn something, which means they have to understand you. Using plain language in your presentations will earn you a reputation for being both liked and understood. People do business and typically follow others whom they like and understand!
Dez Thornton is a communications coach who helps you say the right words in the right way when they matter most! For more information, see www.dezthornton.com.