How to sound less formal and more normal

If you’re one of the very few presenters who goes to the trouble of actually writing out your presentation in full, you’ll know what usually happens when you read it aloud for the first time. It just doesn’t sound right. If you’re making the cardinal error of reading it to your audience (NEVER do this, if you can possibly help it), you’ll probably find yourself making a few improvisations as you go along.

Why? Because as soon as you sit in front of the laptop, your brain automatically goes into written language mode. And there are some very important differences between how we write for people and how we speak to them.

The other side of the coin is that what we say when speaking without a script sounds fine at the time, but if it’s transcribed verbatim, looks disjointed, repetitive and ungrammatical on paper, with jerky, unfinished sentences and abrupt mid-sentence diversions. Take this quote from ex-UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown as an example. Perfectly understandable, but disjointed and ungrammatical:

“I have only [just] found out the links between The Sunday Times and what I would call elements of the criminal underworld who were being paid, while known criminals, to do work that was, if you like, the most disgusting of work, not against me only, but against people who were completely defenceless.”

This is because when we speak, we make much less effort to obey the rules of grammar. In fact, a large percentage of what most people say doesn’t follow the rules. But when you’re writing, you’re thinking about what you’re going to say, and you have to concentrate on grammar even if only because your word processing grammar checker will prompt you if you make a mistake.

Now I’m not suggesting you deliberately ignore the rules of grammar, but if you make a special effort to speak correctly you’ll end up sounding stiff, formal, robotic, wooden and pompous. You’ve probably seen scores of presenters who’ve done this, especially at big set-pieces like company conferences. You’ve heard of Harry Potter’s `Cloak of Invisibility’? Well, they don a ‘Cloak of Formality’ and come across as if they’ve left their personality behind on their seat when they got up to speak.

K.I.S.S. -Keep It Simple Stupid!

Sometimes speakers are tempted to show off their eloquence (or superiority) and level of education by the judicious employment of polysyllabic words where their monosyllabic cousins would suffice (exactly what I just did then – a more effective way of saying the same thing is ‘using $10 words when c10 ones would do‘). But if you look at some of the famous speeches I feature on my site one thing that will strike you is the simplicity of most of the language used.

Now I am not encouraging you to become a hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobe and I do not mean to floccinaucinihilipilificate about large vocabularies (just showing off myself there – the first means a person who has a fear of using long words, the second is the act of estimating something as worthless). It is just that simple words are usually far more effective in getting a message across than complex ones.

If your audience has to keep dipping into a mental dictionary for clarification every twenty seconds, you’ll lose them! And if you keep it simple, then when you do deliberately use a long or unusual word to emphasis a specific point, it will stand out and be remembered. Take the penultimate paragraph of JFK’s Inaugural Address, a masterpiece in simplicity:

“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Out of 111 words, only eight have more than two syllables, and again, none of them particularly fancy or unusual (history, generations, maximum, responsibility, generation, devotion, endeavor and Americans).

Yet politicians, journalists and businessmen feel the need to demonstrate their education and supposed intellectual superiority to the rest of us by using what can only be described as gobbledygook, bureaucratese (such as UK politician Tessa Jowell, saying we need more ‘sustainable eating in schools‘ when she really means ‘more fruit and vegetables‘) or even gibberish.

So . . . . Never use a long word if you can think of a short one. In his unpublished ‘Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ Churchill wrote:

“The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words. The error of this idea will appear from what has been written. The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force to simple understandings than words recently introduced from the Latin and the Greek. All the speeches of great English rhetoricians–except when addressing highly cultured audiences–display an uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage–so long as such words can fully express their thoughts and feelings….”

When Churchill refers to the ‘more ancient’ words he is referring to those of Germanic origin. Much of everyday English comes from German and French, but the more basic words we use tend to be Germanic. This is because after the Norman conquest, the 95% of the population who were commoners still spoke Anglo Saxon while the only people who spoke French were the ruling elite.

The result is that for many things there are two words in use: a short, plain, ‘Germanic’ word and an alternative, ‘fancy’, French one. Use the short one if you can.

So don’t say, ‘We shall endeavor to ascertain‘ when you can say ‘we’ll try to find out‘. Don’t say ‘bring to completion‘ when you can simply say ‘finish‘, and don’t say ‘in order to ensure that‘ when you can say ‘so that‘.

Abbreviate

When speaking conversationally, 99% of the time we shorten words, changing ‘I do not’ to ‘I don’t’ and ‘we will’ to ‘we’ll’. If you don’t do this when presenting, you’ll sound stiff and pedantic.

Active vs Passive

Use the Active Voice. Try not to use the passive when you can use the active one instead (before you email to point it out, I know that you can probably find hundreds of examples of me using it on this site and in my E-book; sometimes some do manage to slip through). The passive voice is used where something happens to the subject of the sentence (see – I nearly used the passive and wrote ‘where the subject is acted upon‘ ), and it usually involves the verb ‘to be’. For example, “a decision was made”, or “prices were increased”, or “songs were sung”.

Very often politicians use it when they are seeking to avoid blame or responsibility. So “mistakes were made” is often an easier way of saying “we (or heavens forbid, ‘I’ ) made mistakes ”. Likewise, “a decision was taken” can be a way of avoiding the dreaded (for a politician) words “I decided …”.

The reason the active voice is more effective is that it is far more direct, and usually shorter than the passive. Thus Eric Clapton’s line “I shot the sheriff,” is both shorter and more effective than “the sheriff was shot by me”. And “We will fight them on the beaches” beats “They will be fought by us on the beaches” hands down, I think you’ll agree. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” is much better than “it is dreamed the speaker”.

A good way to clear up your speech of the passive voice is to circle every use of the verb ‘to be’ (including the future and past tenses, e.g. ‘will’, ‘was’ and ‘were’) to see if they are used in a passive way and if they can be converted to the active.

However, you won’t always want to do this. Good English contains a balance of the two, and sometimes using the passive voice simply sounds better, especially when the action has been carried out by someone unknown (e.g. “a car was broken into last night on Church St.” or “a fight broke out”) or whose identification isn’t important (e.g. “the mail is delivered twice a day”). The problem arises when the passive is over used. That’s when speech becomes over-complex and unintelligible.

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