Oral versus Written Style

Learning Objectives

Explain the difference between oral and written style.

In a public speaking class, you will likely be asked to turn in an outline rather than a manuscript because speeches should not be considered oral presentations of a written text.

Reporter using a teleprompter

It takes a lot of practice to make reading from a teleprompter (or a manuscript) sound natural. It takes even more practice to write in a style that sounds like speech.

Although we’ve seen many speeches delivered from a teleprompter, it is important to remember that those speeches are usually written by professional speechwriters, who are familiar with the differences between written and spoken communication. For newer speakers who are writing their own speeches, identifying the differences between oral and written style is an important key to a successful speech.

Oral communication is characterized by a higher level of immediacy and a lower level of retention than written communication; therefore, it’s important to consider the following adaptations between oral and written style.

Personal Pronouns

  • Oral Style: Heavily relies on personal pronouns, most commonly first person plural such as we, us, and our.
    • Example: In her acceptance speech for the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, activist Berta Cáceres says “¡Despertemos¡ ¡Despertemos Humanidad¡ Ya no hay tiempo. . . . El Río Gualcarque nos ha llamado, así como los demás que están seriamente amenazados. Debemos acudir.” (Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humanity! There is no time. . . . The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call.)
  • Written Style: Infrequent use of personal pronouns, most commonly uses third person such as one, they, and he/she/they.

Grammar and Sentence Structure

  • Oral Style: Shorter thought units that are easy to follow, whether simple sentences or fragments. Thoughts may begin with and, but, etc.
    • Example: Ashton Applewhite begins her TED talk “Let’s End Ageism” with a series of questions and short sentences, many starting with and: “What’s one thing that every person in this room is going to become? Older. And most of us are scared stiff at the prospect. How does that word make you feel? I used to feel the same way. What was I most worried about? Ending up drooling in some grim institutional hallway. And then I learned that only four percent of older Americans are living in nursing homes, and the percentage is dropping. What else was I worried about? Dementia. Turns out that most of us can think just fine to the end. Dementia rates are dropping, too. The real epidemic is anxiety over memory loss.”[1]
  • Written Style: Complicated sentence structures that follow comprehensive grammatical rules.
    • Example: “In many modern nations, however, industrialization contributed to the diminished social standing of the elderly. Today wealth, power, and prestige are also held by those in younger age brackets. The average age of corporate executives was fifty-nine years old in 1980. In 2008, the average age had lowered to fifty-four years old (Stuart 2008). Some older members of the workforce felt threatened by this trend and grew concerned that younger employees in higher level positions would push them out of the job market. Rapid advancements in technology and media have required new skill sets that older members of the workforce are less likely to have.”[2]
A row of identical pillars

Repetition is a great strategy in speaking . . .


  • Oral Style: Greater repetition of words and phrases to emphasize ideas.
    • Example: Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”[3]
  • Written Style: Precise and varied language to repeat ideas.
    Identical cars in a parking lot

    . . . but boring in writing.

    • Where Churchill’s speech uses the verb fight seven times, this excerpt about the Battle of Britain from a biography of Churchill uses a variety of words and formulations to describing the fighting. “The Luftwaffe’s [German Air Force’s] first object was to destroy the RAF’s [the British Royal Air Force’s] southern airfields. Had this been accomplished there is no doubt that a seaborne invasion would have been launched with a good prospect of establishing a bridgehead in Kent or Sussex. After that the outlook for Britain’s survival would have been bleak. But the RAF successfully defended its airfields and inflicted very heavy casualties on the German formations, in a ratio of three to one. Moreover, the German aircrews were mostly killed or captured whereas British crews parachuted to safety. Throughout July and August the advantage moved steadily to Britain, and more aircraft and crews were added each week to lengthen the odds against Germany. By mid-September, the Battle of Britain was won.”[4]

Colloquialisms and Tone

  • Oral Style: Conversational tone is set using colloquial words and contractions.
    • Example: Simon Sinek, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” said, “As we said before, the recipe for success is money and the right people and the right market conditions. You should have success then. Look at TiVo. From the time TiVo came out about eight or nine years ago to this current day, they are the single highest-quality product on the market, hands down, there is no dispute. They were extremely well-funded. Market conditions were fantastic. I mean, we use TiVo as verb. I TiVo stuff on my piece-of-junk Time Warner DVR all the time.”[5]
  • Written Style: Formal tone and infrequent use of colloquialisms and contractions.
    • From an academic article about TiVo: “Our analysis of the longitudinal data on TiVo and the TV industry ecosystem generated three themes that we develop in this paper. First, a disruptor confronts three coopetitive tensions—intertemporal, dyadic, and multilateral. Second, the disruptor continually adjusts its strategy to address these coopetitive tensions as they arise. Third, as the disruptor’s innovation and relational positioning within the changing ecosystem coevolve, the disruptor has greater latitude to frame its innovation as sustaining the operations of ecosystem members. Overall, these themes contribute to an understanding of strategy as process.”[6]


  • Oral Style: Familiar words based on audience understanding.
    • Note how Sinek, in the example above, uses everyday words in simple sentences. The thesis of his speech is stated equally simply: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
  • Written Style: Rich and precise vocabulary, regardless of audience.
    • The academic article cited above uses a number of words most non-expert readers would have to look up to understand. Coopetitive is a made-up word combining cooperative and competition. Intertemporal describes a relationship between past, present, and future events. Dyadic describes the interaction between two things. And multilateral means three or more parties are involved. In a speech—unless it’s a speech to experts—a sentence containing all four of these words will cruise over the heads of most audience members.

Try It


  1. https://www.ted.com/talks/ashton_applewhite_let_s_end_ageism
  2. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-introductiontosociology/chapter/ageism-and-abuse/
  3. https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches/
  4. Johnson, Paul. Churchill. United Kingdom, Penguin, 2010, 118.
  5. https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action
  6. Ansari, Shahzad, Raghu Garud, and Arun Kumaraswamy. "The disruptor's dilemma: TiVo and the US television ecosystem." Strategic Management Journal 37.9 (2016): 1829–53, 1830.