Words have to hit the ear right

Mar 28, 2022

The words have to hit the ear right. The sentiment came from singer John Prine (pictured), talking about the craft of song writing. But isn't it just perfect as a reminder for anyone who has to make a presentation or give a speech?

Perhaps it seems self-evident. If you are are speaking to any audience, of course you would want your words to hit the ear right.

But my experience over 20 years of helping people prepare for presentations has shown that often - far too often - we don't think enough about how the words will hit the ear.

Instead, we focus on how they look on the page. We write in silence. We judge the words by how they look to our eyes. And we trust that when the big moment comes, we'll be able to lift the words off the page and breathe life into them.

If that works for you - congratulations.

But for many it's like trying to bake a chocolate cake with a lemon meringue recipe. 

They've written an essay, judged entirely by how the words look on the page. But they're trying to deliver it as a conversation. 

Are the words hitting the ear right? Not usually. The vocabulary we use when writing an essay, writing in silence, is different to the vocabulary we instinctively draw on when we're talking with people.

The sentence and paragraph structure we use when writing is different. When we're writing we tend to use bigger words in longer sentences. 

When we are talking with friends we use a slimmed down vocabulary and wrap the words in shorter sentences. Sometimes just fragments. We use the pause more often, as a communication tool.

What do we keep hearing that audiences crave, more than almost anything?

Authenticity. But if we are focussed on carefully reading an essay to folks who came expecting to be talked to, we make it harder for the real 'us' to shine through. 

If you want to be sure the words hit the ear right, you have to get into the habit of testing them in your own ears... speaking them aloud... checking how they sound, how they sit together.

A presentation is only good if it makes people think or act differently afterwards. To achieve that, the words need to hit the ear right.


John Prine (1946 - 2020) was celebrated as one of the most influential song writers of his generation. He was known for an often humorous style that had elements of protest and social commentary.