In celebration of Slate Plus’ first anniversary, we’re republishing a selection of pieces from the past year, including this article, which was originally published on Oct. 29, 2014.
A few months ago, Slate’s editor, Julia Turner, sent out this email:
Mike Pesca was talking smack the other night about a great writer at a rival publication … saying, in effect: Anyone can write, it’s talking that is hard. We Slate-sters have embraced podcasting, but I think we are mostly writers first and think that writing is harder and more laudable.
In this exclusive Slate Plus podcast, Turner invites Slate’s very own professional talker, Mike Pesca of the daily podcast The Gist, and Slate Chairman Jacob Weisberg to debate the question: Is it harder to be a good writer, or a good talker?
Turner, Pesca, and Weisberg discuss the challenges of “massaging language” when it comes to writing and speaking, and how the two are different. Who won the debate? You decide.
Listen to the debate here.
Read the transcript below.
Julia Turner: Hello and welcome to Slate Plus! This is a very special audio segment in which we will debate the question “Is it harder to be a good writer or a good talker?” The origin of this segment, I will share, because I think it will orient all of our listeners. I have here with me Mike Pesca. Hello, Mike.
Mike Pesca: Hello.
Turner: And Jacob Weisberg, chairman of The Slate Group.
Jacob Weisberg: Hi, Julia.
Turner: Hi. Mike, I guess you need no introduction.
Pesca: I’m just some guy.
Turner: You’re just Mike Pesca. No, you’re Mike Pesca, of The Gist, Slate’s wonderful daily podcast. Mike and I played in a softball game, a Slate softball game this summer. I guess Mike played in a softball game while I stood by and watched. Afterwards we went to a bar and we were talking about a guy who is a very good writer, and I was like “Yeah, he’s such a good writer!” and Mike was like, “Yeah, but he can’t talk AT ALL. Put him in front of a microphone and he stutters,” and his voice was just dripping with contempt.
Pesca: Huge demerits.
Turner: Yeah, Mike was like “Whatever, anyone could be a good writer—now being a good talker, that’s a rare talent.” And this was shocking to me. I am a writer, and here at Slate, we’ve been a magazine for 18 years, we’ve had a burgeoning podcast empire for seven or eight years now, so we’re pretty senior in that realm. But one thing we’ve done is take a bunch of writers and turn them into talkers. Pesca’s one of the first professional pure talkers we’ve hired to come talk for us, right? He’s a radio guy, came from NPR, years of experience yakking. And it was so interesting to hear the way he feels about writers who just phone it in with their hours of time to write perfect sentences.
Pesca: Would you say you’re characterizing me exactly accurately? No, if I was writing that, there would have to be italics and an emoji to convey that.
Turner: But he was dismissive. Anyone could be a good writer, he said, but the ability to get in front of a microphone and be interesting, smart, pithy, and succinct, and entertaining is rare. And it made me realize that maybe radio people think radio is harder. Meanwhile here at Slate we feel like the true craft is writing a perfect sentence, a beautiful essay. To me, I love podcasting every week on the Culture Gabfest, but it feels like cheating. Writing I have to stay up all night, I have to sweat over my sentences, it’s hard to find the time. I just show up in the studio once a week and sit down with Steve and Dana and I say a bunch of stuff and either it’s good or it’s maybe kind of a weak week, but by the end of the hour it’s done. So, it raised the question I think for both of us: Is it harder to be a good talker or a good writer?
Pesca: So let me just say if this were written, you never would say weak week, for instance. That would jump out on the page. Now, I will be clear: Couple things that you said were right, couple things that you said were wrong. We were at a softball game. Now for the wrong stuff. I was specifically talking about someone who had been insulting, in a fine way, but had criticized me or someone else in that room in print, and one of my critiques of this person is like, “Yeah, he comes up with all these quips in the written word or on Twitter, ask him a question and he’s not very verbose, he’s not very eloquent.” I don’t mean speaking of a stammerer or a stutterer, that’s physical, but someone who just can’t put his words together in the spur of the moment, I look down upon and the analogy I think I made was I think “A good studio band that’s not a good live band.” Now, it’s not exactly logical, and there are great studio bands that weren’t great live bands just as there are great writers that aren’t great talkers, but I do think if you don’t have both those elements, it does take a bit from my opinion as a writer. Now, what do I think is harder? We can get into that. Yeah, I do think being a really great communicator verbally is harder, just because so much is spontaneous and you don’t have the luxury—now it might be the sort of luxury that makes beads of sweat show up on your forehead or beads of blood emerge from your eyes—but you can craft something in writing. Writing is not meant to be done in the moment, we’re not actually even witnessing the process of writing, and that raises the bar for talking. So, I put a couple things out there, my general thesis is it is harder to be a good writer for a couple of reasons, I think that may have changed over the years—
Turner: Wait, good writer or good talker?
Pesca: Sorry, my general thesis, see I misspoke, but that’s OK. If I had miswrote, it would be like letter to the editor, fire that guy. Yes, my general thesis is it is a little harder to be a good writer, I don’t know if one is better than the other, but if someone is very bad at either form of communication, I really think it hurts the overall argument that they’re making. Though that just might be my issue.
Weisberg: I’m actually writing my response, what’s my deadline, Julia? It’s going to be excellent. But I’m not quite ready.
Turner: Jake’s just going to listen in on this conversation then we’ll publish his take on it.
Weisberg: The arrival of Pesca at Slate has been really great. He’s sort of my favorite Martian because he comes from this other planet where everything that we assume to be true, like writing is harder to do than talking in his world is reversed. And I think everyone I know values writing more highly except Pesca. And it turns out in the radio world, they don’t think that way at all, they think it’s really important to talk well. I was just thinking about it: We have a way of teaching writing. The problem with teaching writing is that it’s very labor-intensive and it’s not done well that many places, which is why there aren’t enough good writers, because they don’t encounter teachers who are willing to devote the hours to improving their writing. Another way you can learn to write is having a really good editor. But to do that, someone has to be on your prose word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence over time. And slowly you become a good writer. There’s no equivalent really I think, maybe there is in the world of public radio, but for talking it’s much more intuitive. It’s much more talent based, it’s something you pick up. I mean, something tells me that you, Mike, you were a good talker at 8 and you’ve turned into a great talker, you’ve learned a lot. One of the things I’ve loved about our getting into podcasting is the way Julia and David Plotz and a bunch of our personalities who started as writers have actually turned into really great talkers. And they’ve learned to do it by doing it, and I think that’s really unusual to learn the skill of that kind of talking for public consumption.
Pesca: They are really great. I mean, when I was at that live show, you and Plotz, I was just saying, you are doing things that many, many people in public radio would die to do. And let me just dispel one myth: Most of what you hear in public radio, you know this about the pieces, but even the conversations between hosts and reporter are actually prescripted. Now, mine never were, and there were a few of us, I actually took umbrage at that, I can’t quite put my finger on it, I think it’s cheating a little bit. One day I’m going to blow the cover off that. But there is so much prescripting and in fact so much of what we think about being a good speaker is being a good writer. From Keith Olbermann or some broadcaster who’s good at it, he’s writing his stuff down beforehand, to whatever we think about the great orators, they are all—for the most part—they’re writing their speeches, not delivering them off the cuff.
Turner: No, I think there’s a nimbleness in that extemporaneous expression that it seemed like you were valuing in our conversation. And it struck me as a really interesting thing to value, is that ability to be smart, precise, interesting, funny, and compelling all on the fly as opposed to the calculated way you can do it when you’re massaging the language of a piece over time, or massaging the language of a speech you’re planning to give over time. But that sense of being able to be worthwhile, worth paying attention to, worth heading, without precisely planning your stroke of attack, that, to me, was just an interesting insight.
Pesca: I think most of the stuff that we value, stuff that’s passed around on the Internet or obviously written material—even a John Oliver video that’s passed around—most of the stuff that people point to and say “That. That’s right” is written because you can develop your thoughts so much better, you can take the time and attention and yet as a species, I do think that an extemporaneously expressed point cuts through so often. In political discourse, when someone says something off the cuff, if it’s a terrible gaffe, it has great importance, and if it’s a great zinger or a great line or a great insight, it is a great importance, sometimes we find that those things are written, but I think the stuff that is just said in the moment seems to be more revealing of the person and we like to listen to conversations. So if we like to listen to conversations, I think there should be so much more value put on what we bring to the conversation. I go on a lot of talk shows, and I sometimes see the people next to me and it seems like they’re just retreating, they’re just falling back on tropes, they haven’t really thought this out beforehand, they haven’t put a lot of thought into it. I don’t know if it’s harder, I do know that we seem to put much less attention into speaking well than we do into writing well.
Turner: Maybe it’s rarer to be a nimble talker, and you’re reminding me actually that the most exciting part of any presidential campaign—maybe not senatorial campaign because it feels like there’s lots of debates happening now of various levels of excitement—but during a presidential campaign, the debates, the big debates between the final two or occasionally three candidates do feel like the reveal, it feels like the moment when you’re going to get some unfiltered essence of this incredibly massaged public persona. And obviously they rehearse for days and obviously there’s a lot of talking points and obviously there’s a lot of tactics involved, but there is something—there is a charge there, there’s a sense that you’re getting the real thing, like the essence underneath if you’re seeing something that’s not quite so planned.
Pesca: And it’s not just debates, Roger Goodell could be making statements and we’ll all roll our eyes, but he does a press conference and those answers, they could be preplanned, clearly at times it’s actually been proved that Frank Luntz was feeding him lines, but the things he actually said at the moment are given so much more importance than anything he read off a page.
Weisberg: You value spontaneity, while we value, culturally at least the appearance of spontaneity. But much of what we think is spontaneous talking isn’t, it’s just made to look spontaneous.
Pesca: Well, that’s true, but I do think in a press conference, how Goodell answers, and we say how he looks, but his actual answers seem to speak more, his actual speech seems to speak more of what he’s actually thinking than—
Weisberg: Well, why is that? He’s media trained, he’s gone through his lines, he knows exactly what he’s going to say. Some question might knock him a bit off balance, but the reality is it’s not that different, the content is not that different than if he had put out a press release. It just has a human being attached to it with a little imprecision, a little “ums” and “uhs.”
Pesca: Because I think that we look at a Goodell or a Chris Christie in his really long press conference where he’s explaining away Bridgegate or whatever, and we get the sense, you know what, if I was in an actual room with the guy and really asked him a question, he might be saying something like this. This seems more like a genuine interaction; in a speech always has that layer of artifice in it.
Weisberg: Well, when you’re submitting Christie’s case, he basically was in enough trouble that he had to submit to cross-examination, and—
Pesca: And the guy talked for an hour on something, and you have to say, “He’s a great speaker. He knows what he wants to say,” but a huge percentage of that could not possibly have been preplanned.
Weisberg: It’s interesting, I don’t think this is just the two cultures of writers at Slate and talkers at NPR, because even our society, our vocabulary, when someone’s really good a talking you say they’re glib. That’s an insult in a way. You’re saying, it’s probably pretty shallow, but they’re good at talking.
Pesca: Yeah, “He’s a silver-tongued devil.”
Weisberg: When you say someone’s a good writer, but there’s not exactly a writing equivalent. A fluid, great writer is just a great writer.
Turner: I guess you could say things are facile, a little bit. I do feel, as someone who has now probably spoken more words into this microphone than I’ve written into all of the Julia Turner archive, I’m not sure, it might be close. I probably think of myself as a writer, but I am more of a talker and have a bit of a split personality.
Weisberg: You’ve gone over, you’ve crossed sides, you’ve changed teams.
Turner: Fine. I still feel like I’m getting away with something in front of the microphone because not that it’s glib, it’s something I’ve thought about, it’s opinions that I’ve expressed, but to me what’s fun about recording those podcasts is the magic of an actual conversation of not quite knowing what Steve or Dana think and not quite settling on what I think until I hear what they think and hoping that the conversation lands us all in some other, more interesting place than where we started. It doesn’t work every week but the genuine back and forth feels like a prize every week and the notion the process of doing that with them in a slightly performative, demonstrative way is entertaining to a bunch of listeners feels thrilling. But also when I think about all the nights I’ve spent pounding Coca-Cola and staying up until 4 a.m. slaving away searching through my research materials, crafting a sentence, and throwing out a lead, it is so much easier than writing something interesting, I think.
Weisberg: Your writing is higher stakes, too, right? Because you’re creating a permanent record, there’s a way in the digital age that everything you write is scrutinized, like you get a word wrong and there are going to be 500 hysterical people attacking you. Spoken speech, that doesn’t happen.
Turner: I have to say I got called out yesterday because I went off on this tirade about this Zadie Smith essay in the Culture Gabfest this week in which I called one of her arguments “fucking bullshit.” It was not the most temperate thing I’ve ever said, I went off on this riff about how I thought she was making a ridiculous point about a Corona ad and misinterpreting it. I stand by my argument, I guess I stand by having called it fucking bullshit. When the New York Review of Books’ public Twitter account, which is followed by like 300,000 people said “Editor of Slate calls Zadie Smith essay ‘fucking bullshit.’ ” I was like oh, damn.
Weisberg: That’s a good Twitter account, because it’s the New York Review of Books, you think it’s going to be like very staid, they mix it up. It’s good.
Turner: No, they’re fun. I tweeted back at them defending myself and clarifying my position.
Pesca: That was one of the major points you were making, but calls, literally calls. I said it with my mouth, I wouldn’t have written that. But I think some of what you’re saying about how much you enjoy the live show has so much more to do with how a writer might like improv, a comedy writer might like get energy out of improv, but still he would know, she would know, that when crafting a great sketch, you can’t rely on the improv. And that’s one of the reasons why their stakes seem higher: Because we know maybe there are layers of editors, maybe there aren’t, but there’s just a lot of preconception. When you write, unless we’re IM-ing, thought goes into it to the point where there’s not the same excuse, “Oh, I just misspoke.” I mean, “I just miswrote?” That’s barely even a phrase or a word.
Weisberg: The way with writing, the editing comes first. With speaking, if there’s any editing, it’s when you then turn the speech into something else.
Pesca: I think that people, especially people who speak in front of microphones or in the public should put more forethought into their speech. And you see it with people like George Will, who’s good, you wake him up in the middle of the night and I’m sure he’ll come up with good phrases, but it does seem like he puts time and attention into how he is going to phrase things in a way that other people who are called upon to do the same thing he does just spew forth. George Will is also an editorial writer, he writes op-eds, he of course considers everything he’s going to write. But everyone next to him on the op-ed page at least has tried as hard as he has, you get the sense, maybe they’re not as good, maybe they hate George Will, but when I see talk shows, I’m like this person isn’t even trying. This person just thinks if you show up, it seems like we’re asking you for your opinion and we’re interested, but we’re really asking for a performance, please put some thought into it beforehand.
Turner: So what is your lesson for people who have to go say five sentences about some topic they’re knowledgeable about, how should they go about being an interesting speaker?
Pesca: I love improv, and I love being in the moment, but think about, don’t have it all prechambered or prewritten, but think about ways to conceptualize the problem. Think about some interesting points you might hit or interesting facts you want to convey. I think people, especially if they’re partisans like we’re talking about panel discussions on political talk shows, sure they have statistics that they want to hit, but think about a framing, envision the audience. I mean, writers automatically have to envision the audience. I don’t think speakers often envision the audience. It seems like too often they don’t envision the audience.
Weisberg: Who are the great talkers of our age? As a talker, who are your role models?
Pesca: I think Olbermann is great, I actually don’t love the content, but the stuff he does is great. And Jon Stewart—that’s written—and John Oliver, actually what some of these rappers can do with rhyming off-the-cuff is amazing. I think Christopher Hitchens is just the most interesting case. He was the last great, great orator. This goes back to your question “What would your tips be?” The evidence is he just memorized whole swaths of paragraphs. He had a great memory and he knew what he was going to say and it came tripping from his tongue fully formed. Of course, it was fully formed. So I don’t know if that’s cheating, but having a little bit of that—
Weisberg: You think he memorized it?
Pesca: Yeah, I read that he has, that he thought about it.
Weisberg: He did have an incredible memory, maybe he did have a memory where he would just kind of see a page and it would just go into his head.
Pesca: Yeah, and I do think if you hear him three or four times, he’ll say similar phrases, like George Carlin would in a routine, whole paragraphs memorized.
Weisberg: It’s another great thing about podcasts, which we love for reasons we haven’t completely put our finger on but one of them is it’s the showcase for the art of talking in a way that traditional radio, public radio isn’t. Because it has more spontaneity, but it still rewards what you’re talking about, which is giving some forethought to what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, even as you let a conversation take it’s course.
Pesca: People would be interested about how much research goes into a Culture Gabfest. Pre-planning and everyone usually watches the movie.
Turner: We do watch the movies. Yeah, to me that kind of spontaneous talking that you get can deliver jokes, it can deliver insights, it feels like you can arrive at a satisfying insight in conversation in a way that can land with a charge. I don’t feel like that sort of talking is necessarily as good for sustained argument with nuance. You can make a point, but I’m not sure you can really develop a theory or a thesis or an argument, and to me that’s where I’m not sure if a podcast can quite get there. I think the value of writing will remain in my heart even as I turn over to the dark talkie side.
Pesca: Then again, you can’t read in 1.5 times speed.
Turner: I don’t listen at 1.5 speed, either, but that’s a topic for another day. Jacob, Mike, thank you so much for joining me and talking about talking. Maybe we’ll do this again in print someday.
Pesca: A transcript of our remarks will appear nowhere.
Weisberg: I’ve got a date with my typewriter now, thank you Julia.