Eyes vs Ears and muscles

Our world

We live in a world suffused with all kinds of messaging – from Tweets to worthy legal documents and spoken word interviews and the like – and everything in between.       

The question is – do we understand how different media demand different styles and structures of communications?


I was contacted by someone in India recently who had come across a version of the Kipper (a tool for the design of spoken word messages the IP of which I happen to own) and she had assumed I think that it could be applied, without adjustment, to written word design. Not so, it does actually require significant adjustment.

So, I thought I should create a mini-blog post focused on this matter.

My mentor and teacher Willie Macnair used to say:

“Eyes have muscles but ears don’t”

The difference

Exactly! The major difference between designing messages for the spoken word and the written word hinges upon understanding of how the human senses and brain work.

In the spoken word, the speaker is in control over the sequence and speed of delivery of the ideas – the argument. In the written word, the reader is in control, over the speed and sequence in which phrases are read and understood. An obvious example of this is that a reader of a document may (and often does) choose to read the end of the document first.

This fundamental difference means that the structure of spoken word messages is different from written word messages. Let us touch on one of these key differences.

The Kipper® tool

I want to focus on 2 components of the Kipper® structure for spoken word messages:  the “Eye-opener” and the “Big idea”. In the spoken word Kipper®, the Eye-opener represents the first few words you say that gives your audience a compelling reason to listen and generates goodwill. The Big Idea is the fundamental proposition you are making in order to drive the behaviour you seek and in the Kipper structure are the last words you say.

People who do not fully understand spoken word message design will sometimes say that you should proclaim your “Big Idea” at the beginning of your message. This is usually wrong. The whole idea of the deliberative Kipper® is to take your audience through an emotional, logical, and psychological journey to buy in to your main idea. Remember as a speaker, you are in control. So, in most cases it would be quite wrong to advertise your “Big Idea” at the beginning.

Clearly  though, with the written word, the reader is not constrained by the sequence in which ideas are delivered – so it is probably essential that the main idea is articulated at the outset (before the eyes move off) – the subsequent ideas and evidence simply designed to support your contention.


It is not surprising that political debate and argument in the UK is so lacking. I understand that most political speech writers are journalists by training – brilliant at the written word. They will give you a headline, then a succinct expansion of the headline, then an overview of the argument of the case, followed by more detail of the case. This is good journalistic style.

But real spoken word persuasion comes from a different construct based upon capturing your audience through interest and relevance and then taking them through the journey to buy in to a final conclusion or Big Idea. It is, if you like, the craft of inspiring to action – or as the ancients would say – “deliberative rhetoric”.


So, please remember – if you are dealing with the spoken word, you as a speaker are in control over delivery and receipt (even if you are you being interviewed on the Today programme!) If you commit something to writing, you have given away control to the reader. Know which you are designing your message for.

Eyes have muscles; but ears don’t!

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