45 Understanding the Process of 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.

Understanding the Process of Public Speaking

Earlier it was stated that public speaking is like an enlarged or projected conversation. Conversation and public speaking are two forms of human communication, of which there are also small group communication, organizational communication, mass communication, and intercultural communication. All human communication is a process composed of certain necessary elements:

  • People (often referred to as senders and receivers);
  • context;
  • message;
  • channel;
  • noise;
  • feedback; and
  • outcome.

With all these elements working together, the act of communication can be very complex. The famous German philosopher Johann Goethe said that if we understood how complex communication really is, we probably would not attempt it! Perhaps here we can demystify some of it. Communication is a process, not a singular event. Later we will look at models of communication, which can be helpful for understanding communication but are basically snapshots because a model cannot capture the dynamic process of communication. A simple, basic definition of communication is “sharing meaning between two or more people.” Beyond a definition, we can break it down into its part or components and examine each.

Human communication first involves people. That is pretty obvious, but we do not want to be so focused on the message or channel that we forget that people are at the center of communication. In public speaking it is common to call one person (the speaker) the “sender” and the audience the “receiver(s),” but in the real world it is not always as simple as that. Sometimes the speaker initiates the message, but other times the speaker is responding to the audience’s initiation. It is enough to say that sender and receiver exchange roles sometimes and both are as necessary as the other to the communication process.

Human communication and public speaking secondly requires context. Context has many levels, and there are several “contexts” going on at the same time in any communication act. These contexts can include:

  • Historical, or what has gone on between the sender(s) and receiver(s) before the speech. The historical elements can be positive or negative, recent or further back in time. In later chapters we will see that these past events can influence the speaker’s credibility with the audience, as well as their understanding.
  • Cultural, which sometimes refers to the country where someone was born and raised but can also include ethnic, racial, religious, and regional cultures or co-cultures. Culture is defined (Floyd, 2017) as “the system of learned and shared symbols, language, values, and norms that distinguish one group of people from another.”
  • Social, or what kind of relationship the sender(s) and receiver(s) are involved in, such as teacher-student, co-workers, employer-employee, or members of the same civic organization, faith, profession, or community.
  • Physical, which involves where the communication is taking place and the attributes of that location. The physical context can have cultural meaning (a famous shrine or monument) that influences the form and purpose of the communication, or attributes that influence audience attention (temperature, seating arrangements, or external noise).

Each one of these aspects of context bears upon how we behave as a communicator and specifically a public speaker.

Third, human communication of any kind involves a message. That message may be informal and spontaneous, such as small talk with a seatmate on a plane, conversing for no other reason than to have someone to talk to and be pleasant. On the other hand, it might be very formal, intentional, and planned, such as a commencement address or a speech in this course. In this textbook all the chapters will be devoted to the creation of that formal message, but that does not diminish the importance of the other elements. The message is a product of all of them.

Fourth, public speaking, like all communication, requires a channel. We think of channel in terms of television or something like a waterway (The English Channel). Channel is how the message gets from sender to receiver. In interpersonal human communication, we see each other and hear each other, in the same place and time. In mediated or mass communication, some sort of machine or technology (tool) comes between the people—phone, radio, television, printing press and paper, or computer.

The face-to-face channel adds to the immediacy and urgency of public speaking, but it also means that physical appearance and delivery can affect the receiver(s) positively and negatively. It also means that public speaking is linear in time and we do not always get a “redo” or “do-over.” This element of channel influence structure, transitions, and language choices, which are discussed later in the book.

The fifth element of human communication is feedback, which in public speaking is usually nonverbal, such as head movement, facial expressions, laughter, eye contact, posture, and other behaviors that we use to judge audience involvement, understanding, and approval. These types of feedback can be positive (nodding, sitting up, leaning forward, smiling) or less than positive (tapping fingers, fidgeting, lack of eye contact, checking devices).

Can you think of some others that would indicate the audience is either not engaged in, confused about, or dis-approving of the message or speaker? Feedback is important because we use it in all communication encounters to evaluate our effectiveness and to decide the next step to take in the specific communication interaction. For example, a quizzical expression may mean we should explain ourselves again. Someone’s turning away from us is interpreted as disapproval, avoidance, or dismissal.


These examples are all of nonverbal feedback, which is most common in public speaking. There are times when verbal feedback from the audience is appropriate. You may stop and entertain questions about your content, or the audience may fill out a comment card at the end of the speech. You should stay in control of the verbal feedback, however, so that the audience does not feel as if they can interrupt you during the speech.

The sixth element of human communication is noise, which might be considered interruptions or interference. Some amount of noise is almost always present due to the complexity of human behavior and context. There are just so many things that can come into the communication process to obscure the messages being sent. Some of the ways that noise can be classified include:

  • Contextual – something in the room or physical environment keeps them from attending to or understanding a message
  • Physical – the receiver(s)’ health affects their understanding of the message, or the sender’s physical state affects her ability to be clear and have good delivery.
  • Psychological – the receiver(s) or sender(s) have stress, anxiety, past experience, personal concerns, or some other psychological issue that prevents the audience from receiving an intended message.

This short list of three types of noise is not exhaustive, but it is enough to point out that many things can “go wrong” in a public speaking situation, enough to make us agree with Mr. Philosopher Goethe. However, the reason for studying public speaking is to become aware of the potential for these limitations or “noise” factors, to determine if they could happen during your speech, and take care of them. Some of them are preventable; for example, ones related to physical context can be taken care of ahead of time. Others can be addressed directly; for example, if you know the audience is concerned about a recent event, you can bring it up and explain how it relates to your topic.

The final element of the communication process is outcome or result, which means a change in either the audience or the context. For example, if you ask an audience to consider becoming bone marrow donors, there are certain outcomes. They will either have more information about the subject and feel more informed; they will disagree with you; they will take in the information but do nothing about the topic; and/or they will decide it’s a good idea to become a donor and go through the steps to do so. If they become potential donors, they will add to the pool of existing donors and perhaps save a life. Thus, either they have changed or the social context has changed, or both. This change feeds back into the communication process.

It is common for textbooks on public speaking and communication to provide models of the communication process, depicting the relationship of these factors. There are several varieties of such models, some of which are considered foundational to the field of communication (such as Shannon and Weaver’s original linear, transmissional model from 1949) and some more recent ones. One model that focuses more on the process is the transactional model of communication. In it, the emphasis is more on the relationship between the communicators and co-meanings created between them. This textbook depends on a transactional model. If you go to Google images and search for “models of communication,” you will find many. You can also see an example of a communication model specific to public speaking in Figure 9.2 of this book.

What these models have in common is the idea of process in time. They also will often use the word encode to express the process of the sender putting his/her thoughts and feelings into words or other symbols. Models also use the word decode to express the process of the listener or receiver understanding those words and symbols and making meaning of them for him- or herself personally. Models of communication attempt to show the interplay of the many elements that take place in the communication act.

Em Griffin (1987), a professor of communication at Wheaton College and author of several textbooks, compares the communication process to three games, dependent on one’s theory of how it works. Some think of communication like bowling, where the speaker throws a message at an audience in order to knock them down. The audience does not really respond or have very much to say about the act; they only react. Some think of communication like table tennis (ping-pong); there is back and forth between the participants, but the goal is to win. Griffin says the better game metaphor is charades, or Pictionary®, where a team together tries to understand meaning and one player has to make many attempts to get the team to guess the right answer. It is collaborative and involves trial and error. Models of communication that show the value of feedback in recalibrating the message are like the image of charades. An ethical speaker sees public speaking as more than attacking the audience and more than winning.

Additionally, communication is referred to a symbolic process. In this context, a symbol is a word, icon, picture, object, or number that is used to stand for or represent a concept, thing, or experience. Symbols almost always have more than one specific meaning or concept they represent. A flag, for example, is a symbol of a country or political unit, but it also represents the history, culture, and feelings that people in that country experience about various aspects of the culture.

The word “car” or “automobile” represents a machine with four tires, windows, metal body, internal combustion engine, and so on, but it also represents personal, individual experiences and associations with cars. We call this difference denotative (the objective or literal meaning shared by most people using the word) and the connotative (the subjective, cultural, or personal meaning the word evokes in people together or individually). One of the authors and her husband recently visited the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Nothing like a car museum shows that “car” has deep and broad cultural meanings beyond metal, rubber, and glass.

Now that we have looked at the process of communication, let’s apply it to public speaking. The speaker originates and creates a structured message and sends it through the visual/oral channel using symbols and nonverbal means to the audience members as a group , who provide (mostly nonverbal) feedback. The speaker and audience may or may not be aware of the types of interference or noise that exist, and the speaker may try to deal with them. As a result of the public speaking, the audience’s minds, emotions, and/or actions are affected, and possibly the speaker’s as well.

Public speaking as an art form and a social force has been around a long time. Marcus Cicero (106-43 B.C. E.) was the most renowned politician, orator, and advocate of rhetoric in the late Roman Republic. For centuries he was considered the role model for aspiring public speakers. He discussed the process of public speaking in a unique way, proposing that a speaker go through the “canons (laws) of rhetoric” to create a speech. These steps are:

  1. invention (creating content),
  2. disposition (organization and logic of arguments),
  3. style (choosing the right level and quality of vocabulary),
  4. memory (actually, memorizing famous speeches to learn good public speaking technique), and
  5. delivery (nonverbal communication).

This book will take this same basic approach as the canons of rhetoric in helping you walk through the process of constructing a presentation.


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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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