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“Say What?” Writing Words to Be Spoken, by Rick Horowitz

A few weeks ago, certified professional speaker and author Mandi Stanley spoke to the Write Now! Mastermind class on how we can use enhance our writing careers by speaking. Today, I’m delighted to welcome to the blog Emmy-winning commentator Rick Horowitz on how to craft words that we need to speak! Enjoy!

RickHorowitz “Say What?” Writing Words to Be Spoken by Rick Horowitz

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…”

It’s the classic throat-clearing opening line in countless gatherings, right? Some poor soul standing at the microphone, text clutched tight in trembling hand, miles from the nearest comfort zone.

And sometimes that poor soul is you.

Writing when people are going to read your words – in a press release or letter, in a blog post or magazine piece – can be challenging enough. But writing when people are going to hear your words? When you, or the various someones you’re ghostwriting for, will be saying them out loud? That’s something else again.

Or rather, it’s all that and more. Because while everything you know about effective writing still applies…

  • Decide on your goal – “What do you want this assignment to accomplish?” — before your fingers ever hit the keyboard;
  • Understand who your audience will be, and what they already know (or don’t) about the subject you’ll be addressing;
  • Decide which facts and figures and stories and arguments make the best case for moving this particular audience toward that particular goal;
  • Leave out most of the other stuff;
  • Choose a “voice” that matches your task;
  • Say it clearly;
  • Say it interestingly;
  • Don’t wear out your welcome;

…writing words to be spoken is just different enough to be worth a closer look, and a few extra suggestions. For instance:

  • Shoot for a conversational tone. An even more conversational tone, that is. After all, you’re looking for a “word font” that will feel natural coming out of someone’s mouth — yours or somebody else’s. So you don’t “journey” somewhere, you “go.”  You don’t “assert” something if you can “say” it. Moreover, forget about using “Moreover…” — “And…” will do quite nicely. [Note: You can ignore this suggestion if your audience is the Nobel Prize Committee. Sometimes formal is the way to go.]
  • Clarity is King – in your content, and even in your sentence structure. (It’s hard to hear a pair of parentheses.) A convoluted sentence, even an unfamiliar acronym, may trip up a reader momentarily – but it can lose a listener permanently. The reader can stop, go back, think about it, even look it up. The listener, by contrast, gets one shot at it, and then it’s gone. That listener may be gone, too. So be extra sure to be extra clear.
  • Once you’ve got a draft, READ IT OUT LOUD. Several times. It builds muscle memory for your actual presentation, and – even more important — it gives you early warning about any possible trouble spots. If you can’t manage a particular phrase or sentence now, sitting in a room by yourself, it’s unlikely to be any easier when you’re standing in front of a crowd. Revise that draft until every word and phrase sounds smooth and natural.

Speaking of which…

  • Replace tongue-twister words and phrases with simpler constructions. Unless the point of your talk is to let everyone know that you can actually say “Six thick thistle sticks,” you might want to change that “six” to “a half dozen,” for starters. Or else hand out raincoats to everyone in the first row.
  • Watch out for sound-alike words –not just exact matches like “you’re” and “your,” or “they’re” and “their” (and “there”), but even near-misses that might breed confusion. The first draft of one my recent TV commentaries referred to “talking-point parrots” – or was I saying “parents”? Rather than risk viewer befuddlement, I went with a quick revision: Those “talking-point parrots” became “talking-point puppets.” Makes the same point, minus the uncertainty.
  • Consider the benefits of breathing. When it comes to saying things aloud, breathing is highly underrated, and frequently overlooked. That’s unfortunate: You don’t want to get to the slam-bang wallop of some sentence you’ve labored over for hours, only to find that you don’t have enough air left in your lungs for either a slam or a bang. So READ IT OUT LOUD – and not just at a high-speed murmur, but at something close to actual speed and actual volume; it’s the only way to be sure you’ll have enough air to make your best stuff work. And if you don’t? Try shorter sentences. Tighter phrases. Even dashes – they’ll let you steal another breath when you most need one.
  • Time it out ahead of time – again, at normal speed and normal volume. Your talk will almost certainly take longer than you think it will. The time to cut it down to the right length is before you start delivering it, not once you’re in the middle and your audience is squirming. Feel free to figure an extra minute or two for the hearty applause and the multiple ovations.
  • Did I mention READING IT OUT LOUD?

And finally…

  • Relax. It’ll be fine — and it only gets easier.

About the author. Rick Horowitz is a writing and editing consultant, and an Emmy-winning commentator for Milwaukee Public Television. He founded Prime Prose, LLC, in 2011, after a successful career as a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and as a writing coach for state and national journalism organizations. You can learn more about Prime Prose at And check out Rick’s TV commentaries at or





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