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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Oral Presentation Skills

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Writing and public speaking require different skills
 

 

How do writing and public speaking skills compare? I asked my friend Brian Kent Johnson that question a few years ago.

According to Brian, the two skill sets overlap, but there are some important differences. Brian is an oral communication consultant who does a lot of work for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, an organization that provides professional training and development for attorneys.

There are obvious similarities, he pointed out, such as the need for logical development and coherent organization. But on a deeper level, creating a text and delivering an oral presentation are fundamentally different activities.

"Speaking is a physical act. It requires you to cope with a combination of exhilaration and anxiety," he explained. "When you are standing before a group, your greatest fear is forgetting what you’re trying to say.

"Failing to recognize the fundamental differences between writing and speaking can lead to a misdirection of your attention. If you’re standing there focusing entirely on your written text, thinking your delivery won’t be right unless you follow the dictates of what you’ve written down on paper, then you’re probably not concentrating on more immediate and pressing concerns, such as how to control your voice, where to look, and what to do with your hands."

Well, that made sense to me. I’ve read about studies conducted by communication experts Albert Mehrabian and Justin Joseph indicating audiences are more impressed by visual elements (your appearance, expressions, gestures, and movement) and by vocal elements (your intonation, resonance, and projection) than by the actual content of your presentation.

"So, how do you coach people to attend to those more pressing matters?" I asked.

"I focus on the physical act of speaking while thinking on your feet. The first thing I work on is breathing, because if you can control your breath, you will control your emotions, your voice, and your brain."

"And how do you help people think on their feet?"

"I teach them a technique I call ‘looping.’ If you get lost or lose your train of thought, or if someone asks you a question you’re not sure how to answer, loop back to the familiar. Repeat your last idea or paraphrase the question. Hearing a repetition of the familiar will help you continue your train of thought or think of a response."

"Interesting. That’s how I teach people to create transitions at the top of their paragraphs. How about organization?" I asked.

"Organizing your presentation involves more than the old saw, ‘Tell them what you’re going to say. Say it. Tell them what you’ve said.’ I teach people to ‘Lay it out. Fill it in. Tie it up.’"

"That’s how I teach people to write paragraphs," I said. "Introduce. Develop. Resolve. So organization is the same in speaking and writing?"

"Not exactly," said Brian. "In speaking you have to remind your audience more often of where you’ve been and where you’re going, so I would add a fourth point to your paragraph model: ‘Introduce. Develop. Resolve. Recap.’"

Smart guy.

 

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