46 Getting Started in Public Speaking

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, the student will be able to:

  1. Define public speaking, channel, feedback, noise, encode, decode, symbol, denotative, and connotative;
  2. Explain what distinguishes public speaking from other modes of communication;
  3. List the elements of the communication process;
  4. Explain the origins of anxiety in public speaking;
  5. Apply some strategies for dealing with personal anxiety about public speaking;
  6. Discuss why public speaking is part of the curriculum at this college and important in personal and professional life.

Getting Started in Public Speaking

To finish this first chapter, let’s close with some foundational principles about public speaking, which apply no matter the context, audience, topic, or purpose.

Timing is everything

We often hear this about acting or humor. In this case, it has to do with keeping within the time limits. As mentioned before, you can only know that you are within time limits by practicing and timing yourself; being within time limits also shows preparation and forethought. More importantly, being on time (or early) for the presentation and within time limits shows respect for your audience.

Public speaking requires muscle memory

If you have ever learned a new sport, especially in your teen or adult years, you know that you must consciously put your body through some training to get it used to the physical activity of the sport. An example is golf. A golf swing, unlike swinging a baseball bat, is not a natural movement and requires a great deal of practice, over and over, to get right. Pick up any golf magazine and there will be at least one article on “perfecting the swing.” In fact, when done incorrectly, the swing can cause severe back and knee problems over time.

Public speaking is a physical activity as well. You are standing and sometimes moving around; your voice, eye contact, face, and hands are involved. You will expend physical energy, and after the speech you may be tired. Even more, your audience’s understanding and acceptance of your message may depend somewhat on how energetic, controlled, and fluid your physical delivery. Your credibility as a speaker hinges to some extent on these matters. Consequently, learning public speaking means you must train your body to be comfortable and move in predictable and effective ways.

Public speaking involves a content and relationship dimension

You may have heard the old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” According to Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967), all human communication has two elements going on at the same time: content and relationship. There are statements about ideas, facts, and information, and there are messages communicated about the relationship between the communication partners, past and present. These relationship message have to do with trust, respect, and credibility, and are conveyed through evidence, appeals, wording (and what the speaker does not say) as well as nonverbal communication.

That said, public speaking is not a good way to provide a lot of facts and data to your audience. In fact, there are limits to how much information you can pile on your audience before listening is too difficult for them. However, public speaking is a good way to make the information meaningful for your audience. You can use a search engine with the term “Death by PowerPoint” and find lots of humorous, and too true, cartoons of audiences overwhelmed by charts, graphs, and slides full of text. In the case, less is more. This “less as more” principle will be re-emphasized throughout this textbook.

Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery

Learn from those who do public speaking well, but find what works best for you. Emulation is not imitation or copying someone; it is following a general model. Notice what other speakers do well in a speech and try to incorporate those strategies. An example is humor. Some of us excel at using humor, or some types of it. Some of us do not, or do not believe we do, no matter how hard we try. In that case, you may have to find other strengths to becoming an effective speaker.

Know your strengths and weaknesses

Reliable personality inventories, such as the Myers Briggs or the Gallup StrengthsQuest tests, can be helpful in knowing your strengths and weaknesses. One such area is whether you are an extravert or introvert. Introverts (about 40% of the population) get their psychological energy from being alone while extraverts tend to get it from being around others. This is a very basic distinction and there is more to the two categories, but you can see how an extravert may have an advantage with public speaking. However, the extravert may be tempted not to prepare and practice as much because he or she has so much fun in front of an audience, while the introvert may overprepare but still feel uncomfortable. Your public speaking abilities will benefit from increased self-awareness about such characteristics and your strengths. (For an online self-inventory about introversion and extraversion, go to http://www.quietrev.com/the-introvert-test/)

Remember the Power of Story

Stories and storytelling, in the form of anecdotes and narrative illustrations, are your most powerful tool as a public speaker. For better or worse, audiences are likely to remember anecdotes and narratives long after a speech’s statistics are forgotten.Your instructor may assign you to do a personal narrative speech, or require you to write an introduction or conclusion for one of your speeches that includes a story. This does not mean that other types of proof are unimportant and that you just want to tell stories in your speech, but human beings love stories and often will walk away from a speech moved by or remembering a powerful story or example more than anything.


This chapter has been designed to be informative but also serve as a bit of a pep talk. Many students face this course with trepidation, for various reasons. However, as studies have shown over the years, a certain amount of tension when preparing to speak in public can be good for motivation. A strong course in public speaking should be grounded in the communication research, the wisdom of those who have taught it over the last 2,000 years, and reflecting on your own experience.

John Dewey (1916), the twentieth century education scholar, is noted for saying, “Education does not come just from experience, but from reflecting on the experience.” As you finish this chapter and look toward your first presentation in class, be sure to give yourself time after the experience to reflect, whether by talking to another person, journaling, or sitting quietly and thinking, about how the experience can benefit the next speech encounter. Doing so will get you on the road to becoming more confident in this endeavor of public speaking.


Something to Think About

Investigate some other communication models on the Internet. What do they have in common? How are they different? Which ones seem to explain communication best to you?


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Exploring Communication in the Real World Copyright © 2020 by Chris Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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