Ten Commandments for Writing and Speaking

“Thou shalt not kill (thy audience with PowerPoint).”

I spent some time yesterday going through a box of old papers, filing some and recycling the rest.

As I worked my way through the documents, I discovered an old photocopy entitled “Ten Commandments for Plain Language Documents”. It came from the Canadian Bar Association and is dated October 1990.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this little document. As I went through the commandments, it occurred to me that they also apply to public speaking.

Have a look. Substitute “audience” for “reader” in the first commandment, and consider all of them (especially Numbers 2, 9 and 10) not just in terms of speaking but also in terms of any slide presentations that you create.

  1. Consider your reader and write with that reader’s viewpoint in mind.
  2. Write short sentences.
  3. Say what you have to say, and no more.
  4. Use the active voice.
  5. Use simple, “everyday” words.
  6. Use words consistently.
  7. Avoid strings of synonyms.
  8. Avoid unnecessary formality.
  9. Organize your text: (a) in a logical sequence; (b) with informative headings; and (c) with a table of contents for long documents.
  10. Make the document attractive and designed for easy reading.

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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8 Responses to Ten Commandments for Writing and Speaking

  1. Keith Davis says:

    Hi John

    I don’t know who “…the Canadian Bar Association” are but they talk a lot of sense. LOL
    The ten commandments in a nutshell.

    I’ve just kicked off a mini series on using video in blogging.
    First article is a guest post by Paul Wolf.
    If you get a minute a comment from you would be much appreciated and I’m sure that you could add to the conversation.


    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, Keith. I wondered whether I would get any comments about the CBA. In fact, the “Bar” in the Canadian Bar Association is the legal bar (as in being called to the bar and not for a drink). I am a lawyer and the the CBA is a professional association for lawyers in Canada. I’ll be sure to swing by your blog and check out your new series.


      • Keith Davis says:

        Appreciate that John

        “as in being called to the bar and not for a drink” – might use that some time. LOL

        You’re a lawyer?
        Better be careful what I say.

  2. Jack Shaw says:

    As always, John, you make it seem incredibly simple and I’m with you. I always enjoy your posts.

    I was talking to a high school teacher of English the other day and as she talked about teaching kids who didn’t want to learn about writing or speaking. I kept thinking how all her explanations had made it more difficult for me as a student. I was lucky. I was good at it anyway. Imagine if kids could put it all together as simply as you’ve made it here. This is just good communication–plain and simple. It doesn’t have to be rocket science.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Jack. Thanks for the comment and the kind words about the blog. The reality (as I’m sure you’re aware) is that it often takes a lot work to make things look simple. On the other hand, making the effort to be simple from the outset almost always pays dividends down the road. The alternative is too often confusion and wasted time.


    • Keith Davis says:

      Can only agree with that Jack. John does have a way of making things easy and … enjoyable.

      I judged a childrens Public Speaking contest last week and it struck me that what the kids needed was inspiration.
      They needed to see a speaker speak with passion.

  3. Warwick John Fahy says:

    Good checklist, John.

    It reminds me of Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

    For number 5: use simple words – I wonder whether before we can use simple words, we have to think simple thoughts! By which I mean taking the often complex ideas in our heads and condensing them to easy to explain concepts. It’s an idea I am playing with currently and I would like to add it to my next book project.

    All the best,

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Warwick. Great to see you here on the blog. I am delighted that it now appears that people in China can access it.

      Thanks much for the comment. “Elements of Style” is a classic that sits on my shelf next to “Fowler’s Modern English”. And I agree with you about simplicity. In the courses that I teach, I stress the importance of simplicity in a presentation. By removing what is extraneous, the message becomes easier to understand and remember. Here’s a post in which I talk a bit more on the issue: http://wp.me/pwfa1-hT



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