Speaking in Complete Paragraphs

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In various books I’ve read, a person has been described of someone who “speaks in complete paragraphs.” I knew, theoretically, what that meant, but until fairly recently, I’d hadn’t encountered it myself in a conscious way. Two people come to mind as ones who speak in complete paragraphs: Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman.

I’d heard Walter Isaacson talk before, but it wasn’t until I heard him on the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast that I realized he was one of those people who speaks in complete paragraphs. Neil Gaiman is another person like this. I’ve seen him speak on a number of occasions and he, too, is one of those rare people who seems to be able to speak in complete paragraphs.

Anyone can ramble on. I certainly find myself doing this when I speak, but people like Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman seem to create works in their mind the way many writers do on a page. They form complete, coherent thoughts into smoothly rendered speech. If you didn’t know they were speaking off the cuff, you might think they’d memorized what they were saying–not just the words, but tone, inflection, everything about it. This is one of those superpowers (like a phenomenal memory) that I’m always envious of. When you can speak in complete sentences, you really sound like you know what you are talking about.

When I hear myself speak–on podcasts I’ve been on, in interviews I’ve done–I never sound as smooth as Isaacson or Gaiman. Often, I think I sound scattered. My sentences aren’t complete, let alone paragraphs. Also, I sound just like my brother, and when I hear myself on a recording unexpectedly, my first thought it: when was my brother on a podcast? The one time I met Neil Gaiman, when I was a presenter at the Nebula Awards in 20121, we were gathering for photos and I saw him carrying the two awards he’d just won. All I could think of to say was, “Wow, Neil, are those things iron?”

Neil Gaiman, me, and Joe Haldeman at the 2012 Nebula Awards.

When I was young, I often received compliments on my writing like: “You write how you speak.” Or, “I can totally picture you saying this because this is your voice.” I have to disagree. My writing tends to be colloquial, sure, but it is also far more polished than if I were trying to speak my thoughts aloud. Indeed, I have, thus far, been unable to use dictation software for the very reason that I don’t write how I speak.

Both Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman sound like their writing. Even when speaking off the cuff, I could imagine reading what they were saying as if it were written on a proof-edited page.

Podcasts are the big thing these days, and occasionally, I’ve been asked why I don’t have a podcast. “Well, I’m a better writer than I am a speaker,” I say. “If I am going to do something, it might as well be something I am halfway decent at.” It is not that I am a terrible speaker; I just can’t help comparing myself to those people I’ve heard speaking in complete paragraphs. It is really an amazing thing to behold.

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  1. I also accepted an award for Ken Liu when he won for “The Paper Menagerie.”

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