Presentations: Writing for the Ear, Not Just the Eyes

I’m in the process of drafting a presentation I’ll be giving next month. The first draft is always the roughest, but I got a first cut of the content written, and then a couple minor revisions. However, upon starting to rehearse the content aloud, I realized I still had work to do. Why? Because I was writing for the eyes, not the ears, of my audience.

Writing for the Eyes

For me, writing is a silent activity. While I know some writers often will read their content aloud once it’s finished to make certain words aren’t missing, writing while speaking aloud isn’t as common.

There are advantages to this as well as disadvantages. For one thing, you’re not disturbing anyone around you if you work in a shared office space. Also, I’m more likely to miss words if I talk then type. On a more practical level, reading deeply is a different activity from listening to the words being spoken. I concentrate more when reading quietly, and so I am able to follow multiple trains of thought, understand complex sentences, or make the intellectual leaps necessary to understand topic transitions.

Writing for the Ears

What I discovered once I started speaking this stuff out loud is that I speak very differently from how I read.

The biggest headache comes up in sentence structure: sentences that make perfect sense when read in one’s head end up being quite clunky when spoken aloud.

As I was going through my presentation, transitions that made sense to me as I was creating slides suddenly made me say, “That doesn’t work” once I started rehearsing.

Now I’m rewriting so that the content flows in a way that I would naturally speak, and it’s requiring a combination of verbal and literary effort. Nothing wrong with that; I’m just realizing that I probably should’ve started that way in the first place.

Other Presentation Thoughts

While I draft my presentation text on the PowerPoint slides, eventually, a lot of that content gets hidden in the background notes so that I don’t clutter up the presentation. I want people listening to me, not reading the slides.

I’m also adding more graphics to convey ideas, including video. If I’ve got the screen, you might as well use it. Otherwise, I might as well just talk and dispense with the screen altogether. Plus, my sense of humor gets more free play when I throw in an occasional fun graphic to see if people are paying attention.

I read somewhere that it takes one hour of rehearsal for every minute of presenting time. While that seems a little excessive to me, it might end up being the actual count when I’m all done. I am mostly unafraid of speaking in front of others (Disney trained me well), but I do like to be prepared so I don’t ramble.

Even miscues are rehearsed during my process. If that sounds a bit odd, bear with me. It’s something I learned as a way to settle any lingering nervousness. Expect an error, practice a humorous recovery, move on with the presentation. This turns out to be a good approach for me because I’m no longer worried about getting “stuck” in mid-presentation. Perhaps it will work for you.

If you’re ever nervous about a presentation, these are my usual bits of advice:

  • Remember that on this particular topic, youare the expert, not the audience, so they’re looking to you for answers.
  • Most audiences want you to succeed. Public speaking is still right up there with one’s own deathas a prominent fear, so others can relate to nervousness (which is why that practiced miscue is worth trying–it helps you become relatable to your audience).
  • Explain your content as if you were speaking to a group of friends in a social environment about something very important to you. This puts you in the right frame of mind (being relaxed while talking to friends) without getting too informal (the content is still important to you).

We’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, I have a lot more rewriting and rehearsing to do.

 

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Presentations: Writing for the Ear, Not Just the Eyes

  1. I’d rather not be speaking. This is why I write. But if I’ve gotta do it, I use the methods outlined right here.

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