Public Speaking

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The art of public speaking can trace its roots back to ancient Greece and the orators who proclaimed governmental achievements, entertained audiences, and debated political issues in public forums. In the Rhetoric, written in 330 b.c.e., Aristotle discussed the process by which a speaker prepares and delivers a speech. Much of this material is still applicable. For example, Aristotle wrote about three types of persuasive appeals: ethos (i.e., credibility of the source of the message), pathos (i.e., appealing to the emotions of the audience), and logos (i.e., the nature of the message). A contemporary advertisement in which a notable sports figure (ethos) telling a personal story about learning the negative consequences of driving while intoxicated (logos) to teenage athletes who have just learned to drive (pathos) illustrates the principles that Aristotle described.


Historically, public speaking was known as rhetoric and has a long history, both in terms of training people to become good rhetors (i.e., public speakers) and in analyzing what factors made a speech effective (i.e., rhetorical criticism or analysis). James McCroskey (2000) notes that the oldest essay ever discovered was written around 3000b.c.e., and it consists of advice on how to speak effectively. McCroskey argues that the first theory of public speaking was developed by the Greeks and consisted of a theory about courtroom speaking. In the fifth century b.c.e., the Greek Sophists developed small schools to teach the concepts that are now included in the modern idea of debate. Good speakers were taught how to argue both sides of a proposition and were encouraged to write short, general messages that could be used whenever they were asked to speak in public. Isocrates, the most influential of the Greek Sophists, was recognized as an excellent teacher who also wrote orations for other people to deliver, much like a modern speech writer does. Isocrates emphasized rhetorical style (i.e., how to present a speech effectively) and how to train people to become effective public speakers. In 389 b.c.e., Plato wrote the Phaedrus, in which he discussed his theory of rhetoric. According to McCroskey, some scholars consider Aristotle's Rhetoric to be in response to the criticisms that were raised by Plato. Whether this is true or not, both theorists helped lay the foundation for the contemporary study of public speaking.

As discussed by McCroskey, the next major period for the development of the art and study of public speaking is the Roman period, during which the Rhetorica ad Herennium appeared around 82 b.c.e. This work includes information about style, delivery, and the six parts to a rhetorical message: introduction, statement of facts (i.e., narration), division, proof, refutation, and conclusion. Cicero also wrote several works about rhetoric during this period, as did Quintilian. As McCroskey notes, the most often quoted phrase from Quintilian is his observation that a public speaker is a "good man speaking well." Of course, this quotation would now be extended to include all people, not just men.

In the contemporary world, one of the most important areas of study for scholars of public speaking is analyzing and critiquing the rhetoric of significant public speakers. Sonja Foss and Karen Foss (1994) extend the traditional examination of famous public speakers by their contention that presentational speaking is an "invitation to transformation." Public speaking allows speakers to grow and change as individuals, and it helps others to do the same thing as well. Both the speaker and the audience have the potential to leave the interaction with new ideas and insights. Foss and Foss, among others, provide a reminder that the public presentations of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lord, Alice Walker, and Ursula Le Guin, for example, are as significant as the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson in terms of scholarly study.

Basic Principles

The four principles of effective public speaking are both simple and complex at the same time. Effective public speeches are audience centered, organized appropriately, written clearly, and presented compellingly. Within each of these aspects of an effective speech, however, there are various ways to accomplish the task well.

Audience-Centered Speeches

The first principle, being audience centered, means that effective public speaking relies on understanding who the audience is and, once this is known, developing a speech that is appropriate to that particular audience. The most basic information that needs to be known about any potential audience is the demographic information (i.e., factors such as age, ethnicity, gender, education level) that may influence the audience's perception of the speaker's message. A young speaker who is talking about a historical topic such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, for example, needs to know how many people in the audience were alive when the event occurred. If most of the people remember the event, the speaker needs only to briefly mention historical details and then get to the main point of the speech, such as describing how contemporary teenagers view the event. If most of the audience consists of teenagers who were not alive when the even occurred, more time should be spent during the speech in describing the event and its aftermath. In fact, a speech on the Kennedy assassination for a young audience might have a very different purpose (e.g., convincing them that historical events are relevant to their lives) than it would have for an older audience (e.g., convincing them that modern teenagers are influenced by historical events). Thus, knowing the audience helps the speaker both to choose a topic and to develop it in a manner that is appropriate to the audience.

Appropriate Organization

Effective public speeches need to be organized appropriately both for the topic and for the potential audience. Traditional views of public speaking call for speeches to contain an introduction, body, and conclusion. In fact, some people have commented in jest that a good public speech consists of telling an audience what the speaker plans to tell them, telling it to them, and then telling them what it was that speaker just told them. While this is a bit of an exaggeration, an effective public speech may indeed contain more repetition than other forms of communication in order to assist the audience in remembering the main points that the speaker wishes to make. Stephen E. Lucas (1998) argues that the process of organizing a speech begins when the speaker determines a specific purpose (e.g., to inform an audience about a particular topic), identifies the central idea (i.e., what major issues are involved in the topic), and settles on the main points (e.g., three things the audience should know about the topic). Once this is accomplished, the speaker can then choose from a variety of traditional organizational patterns. These patterns include chronological (i.e., following a time pattern), spatial (i.e., following a directional pattern), causal (i.e., organizing points to show a cause-and-effect relationship), problem-solution (i.e., showing the existence of a problem and then providing a solution to it), and topical (i.e., dividing the speech into subtopics). Clella Jaffe (2001) points out three additional organizational patterns that she notes were explicated by Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp, who contends that they are less linear than the traditional organizational patterns. The patterns that Jaffe discusses include the wave pattern (i.e., a pattern where the crests of the waves are the major points that are developed through a series of examples; repetition and variation are key components), the spiral pattern (i.e., a repetitive pattern that has a series of points that increase in drama or intensity), and the star pattern (i.e., a theme that ties together a series of relatively equally weighted points).

One of the most famous organizational patterns for public speeches was developed by Alan H. Monroe and is called the "motivated sequence" (see German et al., 2001). It is particularly well suited to persuasive speeches. The motivated sequence consists of five steps: attention, need, satisfaction, visualization, and action. The attention step consists of the introduction to the speech, in which the speaker must gain the attention of the audience in an appropriate manner. A speaker may gain the attention of the audience by yelling loudly, for example, but this tactic may only alienate the listeners, not motivate them to pay attention to the speech. Introductions and attention steps must be tailored to a particular audience and fit within the purpose of the speech. For example, a startling statement, such as the number of teenagers who die each year as the result of drunken driving, would be appropriate for introducing a speech that is designed to persuade the listeners not to drink and drive. Many speakers feel that a joke is a good way to begin a public speech, but this tactic often fails because the joke is not well told, does not fit the purpose of the speech, or is inappropriate for a particular audience. The second step of the motivated sequence, the need step, consists of establishing the need for the audience to listen to the speaker's message by describing the problem to be discussed. Monroe proposed four parts to this step: statement (i.e., describe the nature of the problem or situation), illustration (i.e., give examples), ramifications (i.e., give support such as statistics that show the extent of the problem), and pointing (i.e., demonstrate a connection between the problem and the audience). In the satisfaction step, the speaker proposes a solution that will satisfy the need that has been established in the need step. This satisfaction step may include statement, explanation, theoretical demonstration, practicality (i.e., using facts and statistics), and meeting objections. The next step consists of visualization, in which the speaker describes the consequences of either adopting or rejecting the proposed course of action. In positive visualization, the speaker describes the favorable consequences that will results from following the proposed plan (e.g., how one's life may be saved by wearing a seatbelt in a car). In negative visualization, the speaker describes the potential negative consequences that will result from not following the proposed plan (e.g., asking the audience members to imagine what it would feel like, as a result of not wearing a seatbelt, to strike the windshield of a car during a collision). Contrast visualization can be used to compare the negative results of not adopting the proposed action with the positive results of adopting it. Finally, the action step consists of asking the listeners for specific action, which may include changing their beliefs about something, changing their behaviors, or changing their attitudes.

Knowing the audience will help the speaker to determine which organizational pattern is appropriate. Audiences who already basically agree with the speaker's message (e.g., voters who support a particular political candidate) will not be as critical of a speech as will audiences who are either unfamiliar with the speaker (e.g., undecided voters) or opposed to the speaker's message (e.g., voters who support an alternative candidate).

Clear Writing

Effective speeches must also be clearly written. A well-organized speech is useless unless the audience understands the message that is being communicated to them. One of the most important ways to ensure clear writing is to make sure that the vocabulary used in the speech is appropriate for the particular audience. For example, it is possible to use highly technical medical jargon when speaking to physicians, but that would not be effective for an audience of college students. In the same way, sports terminology is useful for communicating a message and establishing credibility with a group of sports fans, but it would be ineffective with people who are unfamiliar with the nuances of a particular sport.

Compelling Presentation

A speech does not have to be overly dramatic or theatrical to be effectively compelling. Instead, an effective delivery should be sincere, honest, straightforward, and dynamic. Varying vocal pitch, speech, and volume are effective devices for keeping the attention of an audience. However, an overemphasis on these aspects can be disastrous and can make the speaker seem phony or insincere. It is a good rule of thumb for a speaker to remember to talk to the audience as if he or she were talking to one person at a time. A speaker should try to convince the listeners that he or she is competent to speak on the topic and that he or she is sincere in wanting the listeners to understand the message.

Much research has been conducted on ways in which public speeches can be presented effectively. The first step in effective presentation is rehearsal. In formal situations (e.g., important political speeches or theatrical presentations), dress rehearsals are held. This situation simulates the actual presentational situation as closely as possible. A mock audience may even be included to ask the speaker typical questions and test the answers to them. For less formal situations, the speaker may still want to simulate the situation (at least in his or her imagination) and check for things such as timing, familiarity with the setting (e.g., where the controls to audiovisual equipment are located), and knowing how the audience will be seated. It is extremely important for speakers to prepare a presentation that does not extend past the allotted time, and they must not be confounded by any technical difficulties, such as not knowing how the overhead projector works. Good public speakers make sure that they know how any audiovisual aids work and have alternative strategies prepared in case the expected technological aids do not function properly.

Presentational strategies should also be developed that can be used to respond to feedback from the audience. If the audience seems restless or confused, the speaker should be able to change the message to include more examples or to shorten parts of the planned presentation that seem to be repetitive. More interesting graphics or the use of more vocal variety may help get the audience more involved with the message. Again, audience analysis before the public presentation can aid the speaker in developing strategies to cope with various reactions from the "real" audience.

Good public speakers also often attend to other presentational elements before they enter a situation where they will be presenting a public speech. For example, dress can be a unifying strategy that links the speaker with the audience. Politicians are seen wearing caps that build a bridge between them and their audiences. Jackets with sports insignias are used to help the audience see a speaker as "one of them." Not all speakers endeavor to identify closely with their audiences, however. For example, religious leaders often wear special clothing that signifies their official capacity to conduct a religious service and to reinforce their role as spiritual adviser.

Ethics of Public Speaking

Given their potential to influence so many people, public speakers should have a heightened sense of ethical responsibility as they prepare and present their messages. Jaffe has identified three ethical guidelines that are important for all public speakers: courtesy, tolerance, and civility.

Courteous public speakers demonstrate their respect for the audience by responding politely to them and being considerate of their beliefs and feelings. Demonstrating courtesy does not mean that a speaker must agree with the audience. In fact, the speaker's job may be to persuade the audience that they are mistaken about a particular issue. However, disagreement should be expressed in well-presented ideas and in statements that are backed with supporting evidence, not in name-calling and making insulting statements to the audience.

Effective public speakers exhibit tolerance by understanding that neither they nor their audience may possess the total truth and that each party should be tolerant of the other's views. This does not mean that a speaker should refrain from vigorously arguing his or her viewpoint, but the argument should be framed within a recognition of the potential for legitimate disagreement from the audience.

Speakers who demonstrate civility rely on persuasion, compromise, and coalition building instead of coercion, deceit, or manipulation. A willingness to listen is a necessary prerequisite for civility.


Public speaking and the study of public speakers and their messages continue to evolve as technology changes the means of communicating to larger audiences. A modern speaker can deliver a speech on television and reach a vastly larger audience than could a speaker at any time in previous history. In this way, it is particularly crucial for public speakers to deliver ethical and responsible messages that further the dialogue between themselves and their potential audiences. Technology has given public speakers the ability to influence hundreds of thousands of people at one time, and these speakers must recognize their responsibility to use this power wisely.

In addition, the Internet has given speakers even greater access to a multitude of individuals who are able to gain access to documents, such as speeches, that are posted on the World Wide Web in text, audio, or video formats. The possibilities and potential dangers of this new access to information have not yet been fully explored, but they provide a rich source of data for new scholarly study in the future.

See also:Apprehension and Communication;Interpersonal Communication; Models of Communication; Public Speaking, Careers in; Rhetoric.


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Lea P. Stewart

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Public Speaking

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