Speak clearly: 5 ways to write for the ear, not the eye

A statement might look good on paper, but when spoken aloud in a media interview, it could sound like gibberish. Here’s how to avoid that.


This ever happen to you?

Before I started working with this client, its communications staff had drafted a few messages for their top spokespersons that were almost impossible to speak aloud during a media interview.

To protect the client’s confidentiality, I modified this example and changed the industry. However, the complexity of the message remains intact:

“This multilateral agreement, and its steady progress forward, is critical because it will protect Americans who could otherwise be maimed or killed should they consume—knowingly or unknowingly—unapproved imported meats, unpasteurized dairy products, or dangerous unregulated alcoholic beverages.”

Try saying that aloud. Tough to sound natural while delivering those lines.

Because you probably don’t speak that formally in everyday conversation, you shouldn’t attempt to do so during media interviews. Below is an alternative version of that message. Try saying this aloud:

“We need to sign this agreement quickly to protect Americans from unregulated and dangerous meats, dairy products, and alcoholic beverages.”

The above sentence is written for the ear, and most speakers can deliver it in a much more natural manner.

Here are five ways you can write for the ear, not the eye:

1. Use short words. Big words sound impressive, but they are rarely as good as their simpler counterparts when writing for the ear. As Winston Churchill said, “Short words are the best, and old words, when short, are the best of all.”

2. Use short sentences. Short sentences are more effective than longer ones. The first example above has 39 words; the second has just 20. There’s a good reason the most memorable lines from famous speeches are short, rarely exceeding 20 words.

3. Use everyday words. One seminal study found that adults can understand 96 percent of all spoken language with a vocabulary of just 2,000 words. Although most native English speakers know thousands more, they tend to use the same limited pool of words in conversation. When speaking to a general audience, you should do so, too.

4. Use contractions. Barring the most formal speeches, oral delivery requires the use of contractions. “Do not” and “I will” work best for the eye. “Don’t” and “I’ll” work best for the ear.

5. Say them out loud. When you’re finished drafting your messages, read them aloud. If any of them contains a word that doesn’t roll easily off your tongue, replace it with one that does.

Brad Phillips is the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, where a version of this story first appeared. His firm, Phillips Media Relations, specializes in media and presentation training.

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