In another post I discussed style in the delivery of speeches. There, “style” referred to the way a speaker presents verbally, idiosyncrasies and all. “Style” has many meanings in language fields. In writing and editing, and in this article, “style” refers to the conventions of the written, not spoken word. So why am I discussing style here?

This is why. In speech texts, style is not what it is elsewhere. Writers, researchers, and editors typically consult “style guides” when they are unsure about the details of presentation of text, such as the rules regarding capitalization in headings, spaces after or before punctuation marks, the format of cited works, the use of italics for foreign terms, and so on. Style may even cover word choices (as in Simplified English, for example), paragraphing, use of bold versus italicization, etc. This is style as writers and editors understand it.

Speechwriters create texts to be spoken and heard, not presented in textual form to be read (at least not originally, but transcription does occur and some parts of a speech may be deliberately designed to be quoted in corporate documentation).

For speechwriters, style is whatever best makes the speech text deliverable.

Let’s be clear, because this could get confusing. Text that is drafted for speech must use whatever style facilitates the delivery of the text in the form of speech. This means that conventions about paragraphing and punctuation can be all but discarded. Ingrained habits are hard to lose, but they have to be. Speech texts are not book chapters or journal articles. The speech text is designed to be read from or memorized for the purpose of public delivery.

In speech texts, some method has to be used to indicate punch words – a radio term for phrases that must be given audible prominence, i.e. emphasis. Punch words are a vital, natural, meaningful element of spoken language. You could use italics, or bold, or all caps to indicate punch words.

Parentheses/brackets are virtually useless in speech texts. At best, they produce visual clutter; at worst, they disrupt the linearity of the flow and risk the audience (or even the speaker) losing the thread or main point. In speech texts, parenthetical statements should be eliminated.

Punctuation has distinct utility – but keep it simple. Commas are excellent for indicating shorter pauses, so use them liberally, to force the speaker to pace him/herself. Full stops/periods remind the speaker that a point has been made. To indicate long pauses, line spacing, ellipses, or dashes are intuitive choices. Question marks indicate where the speaker needs to voice a question.

Quotation marks can be a problem – use them only if absolutely necessary. Do you want the speaker to change his/her voice somehow when reporting text spoken by others? If so, how? Do you want the speaker to make air quotes to signal to the audience that she/he is speaking the words of another? If the quotation marks do not necessitate a change in voice, then dispense with them.

As long as you are consistent and the speaker is aware of your methods, then you are free to create your own conventions.

For speechwriters, style is whatever best makes the speech text deliverable.

The speakers for whom you are composing may have their preferences for style in speech texts. My advice is to apply them, with consistency. After all, you cannot be precious about your methods when the person who will actually deliver the speech has their preferences, which if applied, are likely to improve his/her delivery or memorization. Be utilitarian and pragmatic. Use what works for your client.

Note: Your draft will also give you a visual report of how your speech flows. Large, chunky paragraphs suggest that a single point is receiving a lot of attention. Perhaps it is being laboured or the speech is uneven in some way. (An important exception is what I call the “Second of Three” structure, in which two short sections surround a dense middle section in which the main points are given a focal treatment.) Conversely, bitty, fractured, white space-heavy texts suggest that there are multiple points all receiving a light treatment, which might be exactly what the brief requires, or (more likely) not.

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