Speech Writing vs Essay Writing Activity

As part of our Speaking and Listening unit in Language Arts, I took some time to have students explore the differences between ideas designed to be communicated through writing (essays and other informative text) and those written to be delivered verbally. I divided this process into three parts: 1. explaining the difference between speeches and essays, 2. the study of examples of speeches and written text, and 3. having students apply what they learned in a speech-writing exercise.

Below are the three steps we moved through, including instructions, materials, and links to online resources:

1. Explain How Speeches are Different from Essays

Step one of this process was to go through some of the ways these two communication vehicles are different. Here’s what I shared with my students:

You do a LOT of writing in school. But, most of the writing you create will be in the form of an essay. This kind of writing has a precise purpose. And, the rules are very strict and unforgiving. 

Speeches, however, are very different. They should be written differently.

Let’s look at some of the key differences between speeches and essays…

Keep Ideas Simple 

The writing in a speech must be less complex in a speech than in an essay or a paragraph. When the audience is reading your words in an essay, they have the ability to reread anything that they find confusing. But, in a speech, the audience cannot reread or rewind your words. So, in a speech you must keep it simple! 

It’s a Conversation, Not an Essay

Most writing you do at school is considered formal and academic. You are always encouraged to imagine that you are writing to a teacher, a parent, or an expert. But, speeches are different – they are more conversational in style. If you took the formal tone of an essay and read it to someone, it would be weird and uncomfortable to listen to. Can you imagine talking like an essay?

Instead, it is best to think of speeches as more like conversions. Instead of quotes, citing page numbers, or talking about statistics, speeches use the power of personal stories and emotions to help deliver the message. Speeches are more of a performance – so be ready to perform.

You Can Be More Flexible

Teachers are usually pretty strict about your writing. That’s because once you put something in writing, you won’t be there with the audience to help them understand your ideas. Your ideas must be clear and understandable on their own.  

But, with a speech you ARE with the audience. They are right in front of you and you can watch and see their reactions. Being able to watch how your audience reacts gives the speaker the flexibility to make adjustments as you speak. You can pause while the audience laughs, you can go back to an idea if you feel the audience didn’t really understand it. You can laugh with your audience. You can pause for dramatic effect. You can make changes to your body language to make the speech more intense, if you feel like it. This makes all speeches special – they are never delivered the same way twice. 

Making Your Point

Writers must rely on things like punctuation, or headings, or bolding, if they want to make something stand out. A speaker uses other tools – eye contact, hand gestures, pauses, repetition, voice volume, or slang words – when a point has to be made.  

2. Study Exemplars

I decided to provide students with examples of information delivered via a speech and information delivered as informative text. Then, students were asked to analyze the examples and evaluate them. Then, students posted their thoughts into the response boxes provided. Following this activity, we regrouped to discuss our experience with each kind of communication vehicle. 

This was not easy to organize as I struggled to find content that was available in these two mediums, as well as content that was grade-level appropriate. I searched for news articles about topics that were also addressed by engaging commentators like John Oliver or Trevor Noah. But, their humor was a little bit over the heads of my students and the videos I watched contained waaay too much swearing!

Here’s what I shared with my students:

Growth Mindset Concept

Below are two versions of Dr. Carol Dweck’s ideas about Growth Mindset. One is a video of a speech. The other is a text version of Dweck’s essay about the topic. 

Speech Version:

Below, list some examples of a more relaxed, conversational style of a speech you noticed in the video.


Essay Version:

https://thi.ucsc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Carol-Dweck-Mindset-The-Mindsets-copy.pdf

Below, list some of the precision/strict elements you notice in the written version.


Space Shuttle Speech 

Below are two versions of a message delivered by US President Ronald Reagan. He was speaking to the American people about a recent space shuttle disaster. 

Speech version:

What mannerisms/pauses/facial expressions do you notice during this somber speech? Put your thoughts here…

Written version:

https://history.nasa.gov/reagan12886.html

When reading only the words of the above speech, what differences do you notice? Does it feel different as words written instead of words spoken? Put your thoughts here…

Following the above activities, my students and I were able to have better-informed conversations about text developed for reading and text developed to be spoken aloud. Many students noticed how particular techniques used by the speakers really helped in building connections and in highlighting ideas, such as facial expressions, volume changes, and the use of pauses. In addition, students felt that the text versions of the messages were much more detailed and informative. Many noticed how written text, for instance, allowed the reader to read and reread words and passages if information wasn’t understood the first time around. This wasn’t the case in the spoken versions, but students noticed that the messages (especially when accompanied by appropriate expressions) appeared to be easier to grasp. 

3. Applying This Knowledge

Once students understood the differences between essays and speeches, I challenged students to write an informative piece intended to be delivered verbally. 

I provided a planning template to scaffold this process. Here are the elements touched upon in that planner:

Hook Audience’s Attention

  • Share a brief story or example that directly relates to the speech.
  • Mention a startling statement, statistic or fact.
  • Start with a question, quotation, or familiar saying that has to do with the topic of the speech.

Topic Sentence

  • In one clear and strong sentence, tell the audience what your topic is – what is this speech about.

Connect to Your Audience

  • People pay attention to things that are important to them.
  • You might refer to a common experience, fear, or situation that  everyone is familiar with.
  • Challenge the audience with a question, invitation or a question.

List Your Main Ideas

  • Literally list the main ideas in the order they will be presented. 

Body of Speech

  • Explain your main ideas.
  • Before you move from one idea to the next, make sure you repeat any important points. Remember, your audience cannot reread or rewind your speech. 
  • Use transitions to connect parts of the presentation.
  • Use stories, personal experiences or humor to add interest and reinforce each point.
  • Use powerful adjectives to create a strong image in the mind of the reader, and to keep the listener interested.

Conclusion 

  • Signal the close of the speech by using a simple transition sentence that lets the audience know the speech is nearly finished.
  • Briefly restate the most important things they have just heard – this needs to connect to your Topic Sentence and to your list of main ideas.

End Strongly

  • Use a brief story, example, or quotation.
  • Or, encourage the audience to do something to follow up on what they have just heard.
  • Sometimes it is helpful to mention where additional information can be obtained.

The speech created by students wasn’t something written from scratch. I provided a passage from our course textbook and challenged students to convert that straight-up informative text into something more engaging. I did this because I didn’t want students stressing about creating the content. I wanted them to focus on what was the core takeaway here: crafting an effective speech. 

Feel free to copy or reuse whatever you think might be useful from the above material. And, if you have any insights or experiences of your own to share, please reach out to me. 

Ed X!

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