The great wordsmith Peggy Noonan recently described in the Wall Street Journal how her early training as a radio reporter taught her how to tell a story.

She was working at CBS News in 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted, spreading a cloud of ash over hundreds of miles. Her job was to call people in all the towns near the volcano to talk about what happened. That’s how she heard about the long delays at the local post office.

“Everyone in town was picking up volcanic ash and putting it in envelopes and mailing it to their friends,” she wrote. “The ash was falling out of the envelopes and clogging the machines.”

Noonan didn’t immediately share this story when she reported back to her editor, but she did happen to mention it to a young anchor in the newsroom named Charles Osgood – later known as CBS News’ “poet-in-residence.” Osgood persuaded her otherwise. “Put that on top,” he said. She did – and the story was a hit.

She tells this to show that “small details add up to big pictures,” and to emphasize the importance of anecdotes and visual images in conveying the human experience.

Noonan, who went on to write speeches for Pres. Ronald Reagan, also explained how she learned to write for the audience – that is, for people absorbing information not through the eye but the ear.

Three years in college writing features and editorials for the student newspaper had trained her to write for readers. Then she landed at CBS, where she began learning from savvier, more seasoned reporters “how to write words in the air, which is different from words on the page.”

So how do you do write words in the air?

You listen. Either read your writing out loud (taping it and playing it back for yourself is one good way) or just speak the words silently inside your head.

Notice how your language comes out – literally the ups and downs and other sounds that words and phrases make when they leave your mouth and reach an audience’s ears.

Are the words hard to pronounce? Do you trip over them? Are there too many syllables? Or are they clear and easy to understand?

In her 1999 guide On Speaking Well: How to Give a Speech with Style, Substance and Clarity, Noonan quotes onetime presidential speechwriter William Safire from his classic Lend Me Your Ears:

“[B]eware of undeliverable words. ‘Undeliverable is one such tripword; it may look easy enough on the page … but when the moment comes to push it past your lips, such a word invites a stumble.”

Safire tells how, as a young speechwriter, he drafted remarks for an official who would be speaking about a visiting leader’s “indomitable will.” The official was worried that that “indomitable will” would come out sounding like “indomatabubble.”

So he asked Safire to come up with a different word. “When I gave him “indefatigable,” he fired me on the spot,” Safire says. “Somebody else had to slip him ‘steadfast.’”

Are you listening to the sound of the words you speak?


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