Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

The transcript trap, and how to avoid it

The spoken word is not the same as the written word. We speak in ways we would never write, and write in ways we would never speak. The spoken word in its original form is conversational. It’s a tool we use to express to other people how we feel, what we want, what we’re thinking about at the time. This means that a lot of the time we’re thinking and speaking simultaneously. Your brain is pretty good at thinking, and fairly well-practised at speaking, but ask it to perform both functions at the same time and one of them will suffer.

It doesn’t need to be a huge dip in quality, in fact we’re so used to deciphering people’s garble in conversation that you probably don’t even notice. However, when people speak on the fly, their language use suffers. Malapropisms poke their heads up like linguistic whack-a-mole. People change their minds about the direction of a sentence and embark on a new thought before tidying up lonely adjectives and dangling prepositions from their first attempt. People reach for a word and can’t find it, and fill the perfect-word-sized hole in their sentence with “um”s and not-quite synonyms. Anecdotes break in unannounced, idioms get muddled with metaphors and they all run away holding hands.

Listen to your family and friends when they speak. Imagine there’s a sort of reverse-autocue which takes all of their words as they get spoken, converts them to text and projects them on a screen. If somebody came along later and read the screen, would it make any sense? Would it be a mush of half-finished ideas and paragraph long sentences, or would it read clean and crisp as a news bulletin? Better yet, start doing it to yourself: picture a karaoke machine spelling out your words and force yourself to make them an acceptable piece of prose, not just something that a close friend (with access to all the visual cues, inflection and contextualisation of conversation) would be able to understand.

Think-and-talk garble is a common problem. Even professional public speakers and well respected journalists get tangled as their thoughts pour out their mouths unpolished and unrefined.

Consider this, from Lenore Taylor:

Well I don’t know how – I think it’s unique to this debate that it was dealing with something invisible and that’s part of the problem of gasping exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it – the complexity of the actual issue at hand is one of the reasons that this debate has been probably less rigorous if you like than many other policies that we have.

Or this, from Deborah Cameron:

Now are we seeing, – if – once you can see their footprints in the sand, Anthony, in terms of where the lobbyists are walking, is – is that spin failure? Like, like you’ve got big clodhoppers now, trying to march all over this issue, including James Packer’s great big clodhoppers. If you’re – once you’re out in public with guys of this sort of weight, um, is it – does that mean the spin has been lost? There – now – it’s now outright combat and it’s different?

Speaking fuzzily is fine in personal conversation, but it can be your undoing in a public arena. Check out CJ’s joy reading an opponent’s fudged transcript out loud:

So how do you avoid speaking in garble, and start speaking like someone it would be a joy to read?

First thing is to think of your spoken words as a piece of writing. Imagine that somewhere, there is a 21 year old intern transcribing your words for a media conglomerate (and if you’re anyone who’s anyone, there is). Try to make your sentences read well. That means:

  1. Begin a sentence knowing how you’ll end it
  2. Don’t embark on an anecdote or explanatory example if you haven’t tied up your pre-amble
  3. Use short words – they’ll be less likely to escape you in the moment and won’t weigh down your sentences
  4. Avoid idioms. Best case scenario they’re clichéd and add nothing – worst case scenario you garble them and it becomes fodder for anyone who wants to paint you a fool.
  5. Focus on putting a gap between thinking and speaking. This can be difficult in interviews, political debates or live broadcast, but a second or two is all you need. Breathe. Know what you’re going to say before you open your mouth.
  6.  Speak slowly and use pauses. The more time you can give your brain to get ahead of your mouth, the better.

This is a guest post by Eleanor Gordon-Smith, sometime  intern, news room assistant, philosophy and government student at Sydney University, and  international public speaker and debater. She blogs at egsforbreakfast.


5 comments on “The transcript trap, and how to avoid it

  1. Claire Duffy

    Pamela Summers says “The differences between spoken and written English are well described in this piece and apply, in my experience, to everyone except Andrew Riemer. When he was my tutor back in University days, I very much admired his ability to start a thought, insert four or five dependent clauses and then complete his original thought all within a single, grammatically correct sentence!”

    • Claire Duffy

      The author tells me David Marr is her favourite transcription subject. Flawless, balanced, and poised though off the cuff.

  2. Daniel Kenny

    ….and Andrew Riemer has passed this totally astounding ability onto his son Nick, who teaches English at Sydney University now!

  3. Penny Gay

    Well yes, but even the most fascinating lecturer can unwittingly invent a transcriber’s trap. I recall my favourite UG lecturer at Melbourne: the poet Vincent Buckley – mesmerising, elegant, and I’m sure completely grammatical as well as original. But for almost the entire lecture series on Yeats I thought he was talking about the poet’s ‘servility’ – and I faithfully wrote that down – only to find that the buzzword (never defined or highlighted) was in fact ‘civility’.

    • Claire Duffy

      Ha ha – a ‘Mondegreen’! The Fun With Words website explains:

      “The term mondegreen was originally coined by author Sylvia Wright …..as a child, Wright heard the lyrics of The Bonny Earl of Murray (a Scottish ballad) as:

      Ye highlands and ye lowlands
      Oh where hae you been?
      Thou hae slay the Earl of Murray
      And Lady Mondegreen

      It eventually transpired that the actual lyrics said that they “slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green.” Lady Mondegreen’s name has been used to describe all mishearings of this type”

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