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19 July 2024

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Maxine C. Hairston

Many young professionals find early in their careers that they must often write papers for oral presentations. When they give such papers, they are not necessarily giving speeches; rather they are apt to be reading a paper to explain a concept or theory, offer a solution to a problem, or present the results of their research. They want to make a good impression, but too often they do not succeed because they have written their papers for a reading audience rather than for a listening audience. The needs of the two audiences are significantly different.



The first concern of any person writing a paper to be given orally should be its length. How much time are you going to have? Ten minutes? Twenty-five minutes? You need to find out and take the limit very seriously. If you are asked to be on a ninety-minute panel with two other speakers, don't assume that you will have thirty minutes to read your paper. Almost certainly the panel will start late, the moderator will need time to introduce the panelists, and time should be allowed for questions and discussions. You should really count on only twenty minutes to present your paper, and you should plan accordingly. And even if you are the only person who will be delivering a paper at a meeting, usually you should condense what you have to say into thirty minutes or less. Only the most charismatic speakers can hold their audience's attention much longer than that.

The best way to be sure your paper is not too long is to read it into a tape recorder, and time it as you play it back. That way you can judge the pace to decide whether you are reading too quickly. Probably you will be. Most of us tend to forget that the audience needs time to absorb our points as we make them. If you don't have a tape recorder, read your paper out loud and time it. Then start cutting if you have to. If, however, the paper doesn't quite fill up your allotted time you should probably resist the temptation to expand it.

When you are writing a paper for oral presentation, you should figure on at least two minutes to read one double-spaced, 250-word page in pica type [12 points]. (For elite type, adjust accordingly.) If you can read 125 words in a minute -- and that's a fairly brisk pace -- you can plan on twenty minutes for a 2,500-word, ten-page paper. And if your finished paper runs 11-1/2 pages, you should not plan to rush through it to meet your deadline. Better to cut it back to the proper length and read it effectively.



Once you know the time allotted for your paper, you can decide how to restrict your topic to one that you can treat adequately in the 2,500 or 3,000 words to which you are limited. You have to make your points clear the first time; therefore you should have fewer points. Because an oral presentation usually requires that you explain and illustrate your points more fully, you need to insert signal sentences to preview or summarize for your audience or to keep them headed in the direction you want to go. Remember that your audience cannot go back and reread earlier paragraphs.

Whether you choose to begin your oral presentation with a lead-in paragraph to catch your audience's attention, or with a direct statement announcing your thesis depends partially on the occasion and partially on your personal style. I usually prefer a direct opening statement that announces my thesis and starts my audience off in the right direction. For example:

Students who are struggling to become writers can profit in several ways from learning about the behavior of professional writers.

I would then go on to list those ways in order to give my audience a preview of what they are about to hear. After the preview I would work my way through my points, being careful to use words such as first, second, and next, and strong signal words such as therefore and consequently to help my audience anticipate what is coming. And I would downshift frequently, particularly when I wanted to illustrate an abstract statement.

By using these obvious devices you help your listening audience move with you through your paper. You map it for them and provide directional signals. You can even reinforce your signals by writing your main points on a blackboard as you go. You can also punctuate your presentation with slides or charts shown with an overhead projector. These visual aids not only reinforce the content of your paper, but they give your listeners intermittent breaks in which to absorb the content.



When you begin to work on the second or third version of a paper that you will be reading aloud, try to think in terms of an oral style. As one authority points out, that means several things:

In other words, a style adapted to the ear instead of the eye means that the language will be simpler to grasp; unusual terms will be used more sparingly, and when they are used will be spoken more clearly and defined more fully; ideas will be paced more slowly; and the development will be less condensed than in writing.1.

Three more strategies that will make your prose more listenable have already been discussed in earlier chapters as ways of making your writing more readable. The first is to construct sentences in which there is frequent closure. That is, try not to write long strung-out sentences whose meaning cannot be grasped until one reaches the end.

Second, when possible rearrange many of your sentences into the agent/action pattern. Since that pattern gives readers strong signals about what to anticipate, it should also help listeners. If your agent is a concrete or personal subject, so much the better.

Third, check your writing to see if it is overburdened with derived nouns -- words ending in ity, -ness, -tion, and so on -- or with a disproportionate number of prepositional phrases.

In addition, a listening audience will particularly appreciate a speaker who uses metaphors and analogies as explanatory devices. Probably nothing helps an audience grasp a vague or elusive concept as quickly as having a writer clarify it by a graphic comparison. In fact, listeners may remember the central point of a paper primarily because of the visual image triggered by an apt analogy. Thus if you were to form an image for your listeners by comparing the process of transmitting documents over telephone lines to someone transmitting braille impressions through the fingers you help them to understand a complex process.

Finally, it seems useful to point out that "reading a paper" should not mean that you stand before your audience with your eyes focused only on your paper. People do not like to feel that they are being read to. To counteract that impression, you should study your paper ahead of time so that you can look up from it frequently. Make eye contact with your audience to let them know that it is important to you that they understand what you are saying. And if you have written your paper specifically with that listening audience in mind, probably they will.



1. Roger P. Wilcox, Communication at Work (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), pp. 454-55.

*From Successful Writing, Second Edition, Maxine C. Hairston, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1986, pp. 227-230.

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