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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Rhetorical Devices Used In President Obama’s Gun Control Speech

Obama gun controlA good speech this week from President Obama, I thought, on his gun control proposals, combining a nice balance of logic and emotion.  (NB: As usual, I’m commenting on his ability as an orator here, not the divisive subject of gun control itself; I’ve no desire for someone to start a petition to prevent me from coming to the States a la Piers Morgan!). Also as usual, I’ve done the hard work for you. I’ve taken a transcript of the speech, identified the rhetorical devices used, highlighting the words in bold and put the name of the device in capital letters.

No surprise to say that his favorite device, ANAPHORA, was the one used most often –  17 out of a total of 34, to be exact  (that’s starting successive phrases or sentences with the same words; if you need a reminder of what any of these devices are or further examples of them, read my article on rhetorical devices here). Add in the number of uses of ANTITHESIS and at times I felt as if his speechwriter hadn’t got past the letter ‘A’ in the ‘Beginner’s Dictionary of Rhetoric’!

A criticism I’ve made before of the President’s oratory  is that he often doesn’t start off as strong as he could. I don’t know – maybe he feels that when you’re POTUS everyone will listen to you anyway, so you don’t have to try too hard to ‘Grab ’em by the throat‘ but when you’re giving a business presentation it’s absolutely vital. There are better ways to get off to a great start than thanking Joe Biden. If he felt it necessary to thank the VP he could have done it after a powerful opening that grabbed everybody’s attention.

Personally, I’d have opened with the statistic he introduced after several paragraphs, i.e. “In the month since 20 precious children and six brave adults were violently taken from us at Sandy Hook Elementary, more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun — 900 in the past month.” It’s called opening with a startling statistic.

Transcript Of Speech & Rhetorical Devices

“Let me begin by thanking our Vice President, Joe Biden, for your dedication, Joe, to this issue, for bringing so many different voices to the table.  Because while reducing gun violence is a complicated challenge, protecting our children from harm shouldn’t be a divisive one.

Over the month since the tragedy in Newtown, we’ve heard from so many, and, obviously, none have affected us more than the families of those gorgeous children and their teachers and guardians who were lost.  And so we’re grateful to all of you for taking the time to be here, and recognizing that we honor their memories in part by doing everything we can to prevent this from happening again.

But we also heard from some unexpected people.  In particular, I started getting a lot of letters from kids.  Four of them are here today — Grant Fritz, Julia Stokes, Hinna Zeejah, and Teja Goode.  They’re pretty representative of some of the messages that I got.  These are some pretty smart letters from some pretty smart young people.

Hinna, a third-grader — you can go ahead and wave, Hinna. That’s you — (laughter.)  Hinna wrote, “I feel terrible for the parents who lost their children…I love my country and [I] want everybody to be happy and safe.”

And then, Grant — go ahead and wave, Grant.  (Laughter.)  Grant said, “I think there should be some changes.  We should learn from what happened at Sandy Hook…I feel really bad.”

And then, Julia said — Julia, where are you?  There you go — “I’m not scared for my safety, I’m scared for others.  I have four brothers and sisters and I know I would not be able to bear the thought of losing any of them.”

These are our kids.  This is what they’re thinking about.  And so what we should be thinking about is our responsibility to care for them, and shield them from harm, and give them (TRICOLON & ANAPHORA) the tools they need to grow up and do everything that they’re capable of doing — not just to pursue their own dreams, but to help build this country (ANTITHESIS).  This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe.  This is (ANAPHORA) how we will be judged.  And their voices should compel us to change.

And that’s why, last month, I asked Joe to lead an effort, along with members of my Cabinet, to come up with some concrete steps we can take right now to keep our children safe, to help prevent mass shootings, to (TRICOLON & ANAPHORA) reduce the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country.

And we can’t put this off any longer.  Just last Thursday, as TV networks were covering one of Joe’s meetings on this topic, news broke of another school shooting, this one in California.  In the month since 20 precious children and six brave adults were violently taken from us at Sandy Hook Elementary, more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun — 900 in the past month.  And every day we wait, that number will keep growing.

So I’m putting forward a specific set of proposals based on the work of Joe’s task force.  And in the days ahead, I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality. Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no (ANAPHORA) piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one  (ANAPHORA) life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.

And I’m going to do my part.  As soon as I’m finished speaking here, I will sit at that desk and I will sign a directive giving law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community some of the tools they need to help reduce gun violence.

We will make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of criminals by strengthening the background check system.  We will help schools hire more resource officers if they want them and develop emergency preparedness plans.  We will (ANAPHORA) make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence — even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.

And while year after year, those who oppose even modest gun safety measures have threatened to defund scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence, I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it — and Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds.  We don’t benefit from ignorance.  We don’t benefit from (ANAPHORA) not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.

These are a few of the 23 executive actions that I’m announcing today.  But as important as these steps are, they are in no way a substitute for action from members of Congress.  To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act — and Congress must act soon.  And I’m calling on Congress to pass some very specific proposals right away.

First:  It’s time for Congress to require a universal background check for anyone trying to buy a gun.  (Applause.)   The law already requires licensed gun dealers to run background checks, and over the last 14 years that’s kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun.  But it’s hard to enforce that law when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.  That’s not safe.  That’s not (ANAPHORA) smart.  It’s not fair to responsible gun buyers or sellers.

If you want to buy a gun — whether it’s from a licensed dealer or a private seller — you should at least have to show you are not a felon or somebody legally prohibited from buying one.  This is common sense.  And an overwhelming majority of Americans agree with us on the need for universal background checks — including more than 70 percent of the National Rifle Association’s members, according to one survey.  So there’s no reason we can’t do this.

Second:  Congress should restore a ban on military-style assault weapons, and a 10-round limit for magazines.  (Applause.) The type of assault rifle used in Aurora, for example, when paired with high-capacity magazines, has one purpose — to pump out as many bullets as possible, as quickly as possible (EPISTROPHE); to do as much damage, using bullets often designed to inflict maximum damage.

And that’s what allowed the gunman in Aurora to shoot 70 people — 70 people (EXPLETIVE) — killing 12 in a matter of minutes.  Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater.  A majority of Americans agree with us on this.

And, by the way, so did Ronald Reagan, one of the staunchest defenders of the Second Amendment, who wrote to Congress in 1994, urging them — this is Ronald Reagan speaking (EXPLETIVE) — urging them to “listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of [military-style assault] weapons.”  (Applause.)

And finally, Congress needs to help, rather than hinder (ANTITHESIS) law enforcement as it does its job.  We should get tougher on people who buy guns with the express purpose of turning around and selling them to criminals.  And we should (ANAPHORA) severely punish anybody who helps them do this.  Since Congress hasn’t confirmed a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in six years, they should confirm Todd Jones, who will be — who has been Acting, and I will be nominating for the post.  (Applause.)

And at a time when budget cuts are forcing many communities to reduce their police force, we should put more cops back on the job and back on our streets.

Let me be absolutely clear.  Like most Americans, I believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. I respect our strong tradition of gun ownership and the rights of hunters and sportsmen.  There are millions of responsible, law-abiding gun owners in America who cherish their right to bear arms for hunting, or sport, or protection, or collection.

I also believe most gun owners agree that we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale.  I believe most of them agree that if America worked harder to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be fewer atrocities like the one that occurred in Newtown.  That’s what these reforms are designed to do.  They’re common-sense measures.  They have the support of the majority of the American people.

And yet, that doesn’t mean any of this is going to be easy to enact or implement.  If it were, we’d already have universal background checks.  The ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines never would have been allowed to expire.  More of our fellow Americans might still be alive, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries and graduations (TRICOLON).

This will be difficult.  There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists (TRICOLON) publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty — not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear (ANTITHESIS) or higher ratings or revenue (TRICOLON) for themselves.  And behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.

The only way we will be able to change is if their audience, their constituents, their membership (TRICOLON & ANAPHORA) says this time must be different — that this time, we must (ANAPHORA) do something to protect our communities and our kids.

I will put everything I’ve got into this, and so will Joe.  But I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.  And by the way, that doesn’t just mean from certain parts of the country.  We’re going to need voices in those areas, in those congressional districts, where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and to say this is important.  It can’t just be the usual suspects.  We have to examine ourselves and our hearts, and ask ourselves what is important.

This will not happen unless the American people demand it.  If parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, if hunters and sportsmen, if responsible gun owners, if (ANAPHORA) Americans of every background stand up and say, enough; we’ve suffered too much pain and care too much about our children to allow this to continue — then change will come.  That’s what it’s going to take.

In the letter that Julia wrote me, she said, “I know that laws have to be passed by Congress, but I beg you to try very hard.”  (Laughter.)  Julia, I will try very hard.  But she’s right.  The most important changes we can make depend on congressional action.  They need to bring these proposals up for a vote, and the American people need to make sure that they do.

Get them on record.  Ask your member of Congress if they support universal background checks to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Ask them if they support renewing a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.  And if they say no, ask them why not.  Ask (ANAPHORA) them what’s more important — doing whatever it takes to get a A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade? (ANTITHESIS)  (Applause.)

This is the land of the free, and it always will be.  As Americans, we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights that no man or government can take away from us.  But we’ve also long recognized, as our Founders recognized, that with rights come responsibilities.  Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same.  We don’t live in isolation.  We live in a society, a government of, and by, and for the people (SENTENTIA).  We (ANAPHORA) are responsible for each other.

The right to worship freely and safely, that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  The right to assemble peaceably, that right was denied (SYMPLOCE) shoppers in Clackamas, Oregon, and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.  That most fundamental set of rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness — fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech, and high school students at Columbine, and elementary school students in Newtown, and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate, and all the families who’ve never imagined that they’d lose a loved one to a bullet — those rights are at stake.  We’re responsible.

When I visited Newtown last month, I spent some private time with many of the families who lost their children that day.  And one was the family of Grace McDonald.  Grace’s parents are here. Grace was seven years old when she was struck down — just a gorgeous, caring, joyful (TRICOLON) little girl.  I’m told she loved pink. She loved the beach.  She (TRICOLON & ANAPHORA) dreamed of becoming a painter.

And so just before I left, Chris, her father, gave me one of her paintings, and I hung it in my private study just off the Oval Office.  And every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace.  And I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her, and most of all, I think about how, when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now — for Grace.  For the 25 other innocent children and devoted educators who had so much left to give.  For the men and women in big cities and small towns who fall victim to senseless violence each and every day.  For all the (ANAPHORA) Americans who are counting on us to keep them safe from harm.  Let’s do the right thingLet’s do the right thing (EPIZEUXIS) for them, and for this country that we love so much.  (Applause.)

Thank you.  Let’s sign these orders.”