For the last 5,000 years, humans have communicated with each other in two major ways: speaking and writing. As an English speaker in particular, you might think that speaking and writing are pretty similar—like different sides of the same coin. But in reality, they’re like two different coins altogether. In fact, a 2015 study from Johns Hopkins showed that speaking and writing actually utilize two distinct areas of the brain.
What does this mean for you? If you’ve always thought of public speaking as just delivering written remarks–in other words, “writing out loud”–chances are you’ve been getting it wrong (and putting your listeners to sleep). Conversely, if you write exactly the way you speak, your message might not resonate with readers as well as it could. Paying closer attention to these five commonly overlooked differences between writing and speaking can help you improve both those faculties at the same.
One of the biggest differences between speaking and writing is the level of attention your audience is likely to give your message. When you speak, listeners are seldom 100% focused on what you’re saying. There are just too many distractions: what they’re thinking about, what you’re wearing, what the room looks like, the way your voice sounds, etc. And since we think three to four times faster than we speak, your listeners’ thinking will always be a few steps ahead of the words coming out of your mouth.
When you write, you arguably have a more captive audience of readers, simply due to the nature of reading–at least until your readers stop reading. Readers are almost completely engrossed by the words on the page; reading demands a higher degree of concentration. That frees you up as a writer to present your ideas more methodically, and to skimp on some of the flourishes and techniques you need to keep a live audience of listeners from getting distracted.
In speaking, offering frequent recaps is critical. When you’re driving towards a new destination, you need constant reminders (“road signs”) of where you’re heading. They help make sure your listeners stay along for the journey from beginning to end.
In writing, on the other hand, repetition is usually superfluous and can sometimes even be irritating. Writing has its own conventions to help structure the progression of ideas, like subheadings and chapters. Since reading takes comparatively much more focus, repetition can actually slow things down and cause frustrated readers to put down your text altogether.
When you speak, your choice of words is important, but not as much as you might think. When audiences listen to you speak, they may not remember particular phrases, even if they’re following your meaning closely. Listening is more about paying attention at the thought level, not the word level. This is because our brains act as editors, taking what we hear and sending it through filters based on our memories, assumptions, and biases. So in speaking, you may have more leeway in deciding which words you use to convey your message.
When you write, on the other hand, word choice is critical. Your readers can’t help but pay closer attention to the words you choose, and they’ll be much more critical of imprecise language. Good writing and great writing aren’t so much distinguished by the breadth of your vocabulary as by the way you choose language that’s best suited to the idea or impression you want to generate. That rule of course holds true for speakers as well, but it can arguably play a bigger role in writing.
As a rule of thumb, you should use less complex structures in your speaking than in your writing. The biggest reason why is simple: You need to breathe. When you speak in long, complex sentences, you tend to stuff so many words together that you end up gasping for air. In addition, you’ll use filler words like “ah” and “um” more frequently. So keep it simple. Think of speaking in terms of phrases–meaningful groups of words supported by breaths. By speaking in simple phrases, rather than in complex sentences, you’ll increase your fluency and help your audience stay engaged.
Writing allows for greater complexity because readers tend to read faster than speakers speak; since pausing to breathe isn’t an issue, you can pack more words into a mental “breath,” so to speak. In some cases, complexity can add variety and keep your writing interesting. The best writers can weave both long, complex and short, simple sentences together for maximum impact.
Effective speakers use simple, obvious rhythms to keep their audiences engaged. You can repeat certain phrases in order to create a crescendo, or what’s known as a “rhythmic build.” This is a skill President Obama uses frequently in his speaking. For example, in the closing of his September address to the United Nations, he said, “They can be made to fear, they can be taught to hate, but they can also respond to hope.” A rhythmic build with three simple repetitions is best—four or five is usually overkill.
Writing can accommodate more complex rhythmic patterns. Many writers tend to think of formal inventiveness as the preserve of creative writing, but the fact is that no one likes to read dry, plodding prose. Business writing can become just as engaging as fiction if you repeat certain phrases for rhetorical impact. Pay attention to the “sound” of the words on the page, and use rhythm as well as the relative complexity of your sentence structure in order to speed up or slow down your readers’ pace.
In both speaking and writing, you have greater control over how your audiences receive your message than you might think. But making the most of it–in both formats–starts with distinguishing between these five differences, then using them to maximum effect.