People often say — because there’s some truth in it — that a speech or presentation is like a conversation. It should be immediate, direct, and — whether formal or informal — unadorned. It has to be immediately understood, and it should create the sense of a give and take, an interchange of ideas and emotions.
Ronald Reagan told his speechwriters that he never wanted to say anything in a speech that he wouldn’t say in conversation with his barber in Santa Barbara. (His speeches, mind you, might have had more memorable passages, if he hadn’t imposed such a restraint on them.)
But every time you say something is like something else, you always have to acknowledge that the two things are also unalike.
Listen closely to a conversation or read the word-for-word transcription of one, and you’ll realize that most conversations don’t deserve to be emulated. Our day-to-day conversations are laced with ums and ers and you knows and it’s likes. Run-on or incomplete sentences are common. And changing subject mid-sentence is not uncommon. So in some ways you don’t want your speech or someone else’s speech to be exactly like a conversation.
(Max Atkinson has a great chapter in Lend Me Your Ears, titled “Speaking in Private and Speaking in Public,” that bears directly upon this topic.)
Apply Mark Twain’s advice about creating dialogue for fictional characters to your speeches, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about:
When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the circumstances, and have a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevance, and remain in the neighborhood of the the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.