05C5B29A-D2E1-7997-E8FC017DB53BB307
3809E396-DD6D-7729-B417A11397F6E632

Oral Communication Center

Delivering a Presentation

Spoken vs. Written Language

James A. Winans, who graduated from Hamilton College in 1897 and went on to chair Cornell's Department of Oratory and Debate, said "A speech is not an essay on its hind legs." This was Winans' way of saying that writing and speaking are significantly different. One way in which they differ is in the language and sentence structures they typically employ.

A speaker who writes an oral presentation as if it were an essay and merely reads it risks losing the audience. Such a presentation may seem "canned," impersonal and lifeless, stilted and insincere. The language may be so technical and unfamiliar or the sentences so dense that the listeners have trouble following without the text in front of them.

What is more effective in most speaking situations is what is called oral style. Compared with writing, effective oral style is characterized by the following*:

  • More words that refer to people and human relationships to help create and sustain interest and attention.
  • More personal pronouns—such as I, we, you, and our—to aid in the establishment of identification, to make a connection with our listeners.
  • Shorter thought units, including sentence fragments, to make oral presentations easier to follow.
  • More repetition of words, phrases, and sentences to emphasize important ideas and information.
  • More familiar words to increase audience identification and understanding.
  • More colloquial words and shortened forms (such as contractions), which help make the language more lively and conversational.
  • Much less use of terms and phrases that work in writing but can lose their meaning or become confusing in speaking.  Examples: "as mentioned above," "the former…the latter," and "respectively."
In addition, effective oral presentations tend to feature much more
  • Announcing…what the speaker is doing now or is going to do next.
  • Signaling…where the speaker is in the explanation or argument.
  • Recapping…what has been said and what is important to take away as the speaker moves on.

*Adapted in part from Osborn, R.P. & Osborn, S. (1994). Public Speaking. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.