Before we focus on useful language for academic presentations, it’s worth examining how spoken language differs from written language. When preparing for a presentation, students tend to assume that they need to speak the way they write, but this is not entirely true. Obviously, it is an academic presentation with evidence from research, complex diagrams and technical vocabulary, but spoken and written texts have some differences.
So, let’s have a look and see if you can ‘sense’ or notice any differences between written and spoken language. We will use two texts that are of similar length and have a similar topic, mental health in West Africa.
Task: Below are two extracts. One is from an academic journal article and the other is from the transcript of a TED talk. Can you identify which is the article (written text) and which is the transcript (spoken text)? Have a think, then check your answer.
According to the World Health Organization, mental health is about being able to cope with the normal stressors of life; to work productively and fruitfully; and to be able to make a contribution to your community. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being. Globally, 75 percent of all mental illness cases can be found in low-income countries. Yet most African governments invest less than one percent of their health care budget in mental health. Even worse, we have a severe shortage of psychiatrists in Africa.
Risk factors for common mental health problems include population-wide exposures to trauma such as witnessing and caring for individuals who are severely ill, perceived life threat, substantial mortality and bereavement, orphaning of children, the deaths of trained health care workers, food and resource insecurity, discrimination against affected families, and national stigma. The absence of mental health and psychosocial support systems and the lack of well-trained mental health professionals in these countries have amplified the risks of enduring psychological distress and progression to psychopathology.
Extracts adapted from Shultz, Baingana and Neria (2015) and Delle (2017)
Extract 1: spoken (presentation transcript)
Extract 2: written (academic journal article)
You might have guessed right without knowing for sure why. One thing you could base your answer on is how complex the sentences are. Both texts are of similar length, but they don’t have the same number of sentences. Extract 1 has five sentences, while Extract 2 has two sentences. Extract 1 presents information in shorter sentences, therefore allowing more pauses. Extract 2 packs a lot of information in two longer sentences and, in order to do that, it uses more complex grammar e.g. longer noun phrases.
If you weren’t able to guess which text is spoken and which is written, don’t worry. We will now have a look at some key differences between spoken and written language.
Below are some of the features of spoken language that Gillet (2021) lists:
“the structures are different“ (spoken) vs. “these structural differences“ (written)
“to develop a vaccine” (spoken) vs. “vaccine development“ (written)
Remember that spoken language and written language may have similar features but not in the same frequency. For example, spoken language uses shorter and simpler sentences more often to help the audience understand what you are saying e.g. explaining a process, commenting on a graph, listing findings from the literature, etc. In addition, using pronouns helps with the organisation of the presentation and connecting with your audience e.g. We can now turn to… Here, I’d like to show you how…
Obviously, it might be difficult to see these differences in two short extracts. So, below we have summarised some differences between longer extracts of the same texts we used earlier. This time, however, we compared two extracts of approximately 900 words.
Spoken text (TED talk transcript) – see link
Written text (academic journal article) – see link
Number of sentences
Average sentence length (number of words)
Lexical density (pronouns)
Number of first and second person pronouns
To sum up, academic presentations involve communicating information on research, theories, practices, arguments, etc. and require the use of academic and technical vocabulary, but they are not the same as academic writing in terms of sentence length, lexical density, pronoun use and grammar.