44 What is 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.

What is Public Speaking?

What is your mental picture when you think about “public speaking?” The President of the United States delivering an inaugural address? A sales representative seeking to persuade clients in a board room? Your minister, priest, or rabbi presenting a sermon at a worship service? Your professor lecturing? A dramatic courtroom scene, probably from Law & Order? Politicians debating before an election? A comedian doing stand-up at a night club?

All of these and more are instances of public speaking. Be assured that public speaking takes many forms every day in our country and across the world. Now let’s get personal: Do you see yourself as a public speaker? And when you do, do you see yourself as confident, prepared, and effective? Or do you see a person who is nervous, unsure of what to say, and feeling as if they are failing to get their message across?

You find yourself in this Fundamentals of Speech course and probably have mixed emotions. More than likely, it is required for graduation in your major. Perhaps you have taken a formal public speaking course before. Although they are not as common in secondary education as in colleges (Education Commission of the States, 2015), public speaking instruction may have been part of your high school experience. Maybe you competed in debate or individual speaking events or you have acted in plays. These activities can help you in this course, especially in terms of confidence and delivery.

On the other hand, it might be that the only public speaking experience you have had felt like a failure and therefore left you embarrassed and wanting to forget it and stay far away from public speaking. It might have been years ago, but the feeling still stays with you. This class is not something you have been looking forward to, and you may have put it off. Maybe your attitude is, “Let’s just get it over with.” You might think that it’s just another course you have to “get through” in order to study your major—what really interests you—and start a career in your field.

These are all understandable emotions because, as you have probably heard or read, polls indicate public speaking is one of the things Americans fear the most. As Jerry Seinfeld has said in his stand-up comedy routine,

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

While it is a stretch to think that most people fear death less than giving a short speech, aversion toward public speaking situations and tasks is common.

Before we go any further, though, what do we mean by “public speaking?” The most obvious answer is “talking in front of a group of people.” For the purposes of this class and this book, public speaking is more formal than that. Public speaking is an organized, face-to-face, prepared, intentional (purposeful) attempt to inform, entertain, or persuade a group of people (usually five or more) through words, physical delivery, and (at times) visual or audio aids. In almost all cases, the speaker is the focus of attention for a specific amount of time. There still may be some back-and-forth interaction, such as questions and answers with the audience, but the speaker usually holds the responsibility to direct that interaction either during or after the prepared speech has concluded.

As Stephen A. Lucas (2015) has written, public speaking is an “enlarged conversation,” and as such it has some similarities to conversations but some major differences, too. As a conversation, it has elements of:

  • awareness of and sensitivity toward your audience (in this case, more than one person);
  • an exchange of explicit messages about content (facts, ideas, information) and less explicit ones about relationship (how you relate to one another, such as trust, liking, respect);[this content/relationship dichotomy will come up again in this book and is characteristic of all communication];
  • a dependence on feedback to know if you are successful in being understood (usually nonverbal in public speaking, but still present);
  • the fact that the public speaking communication is (almost always) face-to-face rather than mediated (through a computer, telephone, mass media, or writing).

As an “enlarged conversation” public speaking needs to be more purposeful (to entertain, inform, or persuade); highly organized with certain formal elements (introduction and clear main points, for example); and usually dependent on resources outside of your personal experience (research to support your ideas).

Of course, the delivery would have to be “enlarged” or “projected” as well—louder, more fluid, and more energetic, depending on the size and type of room in which you are speaking—and you will be more conscious of the correctness and formality of your language. You might say, “That sucks” in a conversation but are less likely to do so in front of a large audience in certain situations. If you can keep in mind the basic principle that public speaking is formalized communication with an audience designed to achieve mutual understanding for mutual benefit (like a conversation), rather than a “performance,” you will be able to relate to your audience on the human and personal level.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book