I’m a litigation attorney admitted to practice before numerous state and federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court. I’m also a speechwriter, award-winning communications professional, and author of a number of published speeches and articles for legal publications. I earned my B.A. from Grand Valley State University (with high honors), my master’s in journalism from Ohio University, and my J.D. (with honors) from the University of Notre Dame Law School, where I won the 1997 A. Harold Weber award for excellence in legal writing. I’ve taught legal writing as well as university composition and business writing courses and have conducted nationally promoted workshops for business communicators. After 18 years of practicing law in Illinois and Michigan for major law firms, I’ve returned to my first love – writing. I now work as a freelance legal writer, speechwriter, and copy writer.
For litigation or appellate opportunities, or other legal research and writing matters, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For speechwriting, writing teaching/coaching, or other communications matters, please contact me at email@example.com.
“Waves of Sound and Vivid Pictures:”
Writing for the ear rather than for the eye, and why it matters
“The climax of oratory is reached by a rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures.” Winston Churchill, unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” written in November of 1897.
As a professional communicator, I’ve written many, many speeches for executives, narrations for slide shows, and scripts for various audio-visual formats. As a litigation attorney, I’ve written arguments for hearings, opening and closing statements for trials, and oral arguments for appellate courts. What do these writing tasks have in common? They’re communications that people will hear, rather than read. They must be written for the ear rather than for the eye. This difference matters.
Here are some things I keep in mind when writing for the ear, including when I write dialogue for fiction.
Word choice. Writing for the ear doesn’t preclude long words. But it does require conversational words, words that reach the listener. Vivid words work, of course; short ones are usually preferable (“use” rather than “utilize,” for example); words that people would actually say work best in most circumstances. Think about words that draw pictures and words your audience will understand. An example from the Corporate Speechwriter’s Handbook by Jerry Tarver: Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, wrote a speech for President Franklin Roosevelt that contained the line, “We are trying to construct a more inclusive society.” Later, she heard the speech on the radio; Roosevelt had changed it to “We are going to make a country in which no one is left out.” The wishy-washy “we are trying” is gone, the too-formal “construct” became “make,” the too-abstract “inclusive society” became “a country in which no one is left out.”
Rhythm. It’s been reported that President Obama’s speechwriters obsess over rhythm and cadence. Makes sense – think about the effect of rhythms in music, and how they can invigorate or calm us. A simple example: here is the rhythm created by Obama in the opening of his victory speech at the 2008 Iowa caucuses:
“They said this day would never come.
They said our sights were set too high.
They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.
“But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.”
Sentence structure. When you write for the ear, good news: sentence fragments are just fine. Not so fine: sentences with too many clauses. Clauses work on the page because the eye can absorb the words that come before and after. In spoken language, they tend to interrupt the flow of meaning. Write “I once had a farm in Africa,” rather than “I once had a farm, where I tried unsuccessfully to grow coffee alongside a volcano, in Africa.” Clauses tend to send the listener down irrelevant side streets, where they risk getting lost or mugged by thoughts irrelevant to the speech (“Did I lock the car? Will I have time to roast that chicken – let’s see, 20 minutes per pound times 5.7 pounds, five times 20 is a hundred, that’s one hour and twenty minutes, what time is it anyway …,” etc.)
Spoken sentences can be quite long, if they are clear. Connected ideas that might be expressed in one written sentence can be strung in logical sequence by using sentences that start with “And…” or “But….” If qualifying information is absolutely necessary to a sentence, put it somewhere the listener won’t trip over it, as in this example from Prof. Tarver: Rewrite “Will Rogers, the famous humorist from Oklahoma, once said …,” to “That famous Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers once said … .”
Length of the entire piece. It may take more words to express an idea in speaking than it would in writing. Keep that in mind – you may want to shorten or narrow the topic.
Repetition. Rhythm can create a form of repetition, as in the Obama example. Repetition of the right words in the right circumstances can be extraordinarily powerful. Here is Winston Churchill shortly after his election as Prime Minister, speaking to Parliament on May 13, 1940:
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
All those devices we learned studying English in high school. Plus parables, which are analogies simplified to the essentials to give us deeper understanding of something in our own experience. Metaphors, similes, analogies – they work because the mind understands and retains them so much better than abstract, analytical exposition.
How it looks on the page. This is just for speeches, and assuming the speaker won’t have a teleprompter. I use a format that sets up the speech to that each page will take about one minute to read, so 20 pages means you have a 20-minute speech. Indent about 1/3 of the page width so that the script appears on the right-hand 2/3 page. Number the pages; if the speaker drops the thing, it can be put right in a hurry. Don’t staple it; the idea is that the speaker can put the pages on a podium or lectern, and as she finishes a page she can slide it to the left just a bit and still see the next page, so that she can transition page-to-page smoothly. You can put stage directions or headings on the left hand side.
Get somewhere. Determining the purpose of your speech (or whatever it is you are writing for the ear) is your business. Once you have a clear statement of your main theme or message, the classic formula for organizing sermons is a pretty good starting point for speeches: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. Just be sure to end big – a concise and memorable sound bite, a return to an idea and expression you used in the beginning, a call to action – whatever will bring a sense of completion to your listeners.
You’re not quite done. There’s one more thing I recommend if you are writing something that will be heard rather than read, and especially when it is something that will be delivered by someone standing in front of an audience, live and in the flesh. Read your work out loud. Yes, the whole thing. You can test-drive portions as you go along, but before you put that speech in a speaker’s hands – or, if you are the speaker, before you get up in front of that audience – you should read it out loud, yourself. No matter how well you think you’ve written it, when you read it aloud you will find awkward spots, unclear phrases, words that on reconsideration you will find are difficult for a live audience to absorb.
So read it aloud. Fix the bumps, whisk out the lumps, make it smooth, and make sure you are within your time limit. I find it is particularly helpful to use my office-mates Diesel and Maisie as a test audience. They are Rottweilers, and they are unfailingly attentive and task-oriented so long as no squirrels happen to run across the deck while I’m reading.
If you are interested in writing speeches, I’d suggest that you spend some time reading speeches by the masters. Churchill is a good start. No one ever used oratory to greater effect for higher stakes than Churchill; as I wrote this piece I looked back at several of his speeches, and some give me chills to this day.
Speeches by JFK, Obama, and many other masters of the craft are on the Internet. Most professional speechwriters are familiar with Vital Speeches of the Day. Two of my speeches have been picked up by Vital Speeches, one for a corporate client and one that I wrote for myself, called “Good Writing is Good Business,” which I delivered to an audience of about 130 people, just for fun.