COMM200 | Lesson 1
Introduction to Public Speaking

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In this Lesson, you will learn about the history, benefits, and theories of communication. After this lesson, you should be familiar with the basic elements of public speaking and the ethical principles of public speaking. We will also examine speaker anxiety and ways to overcome it. This lesson is the foundation for your journey as a student of rhetoric and public speaking.

A Learned Skill

A common misconception about public speaking is that people are born with a natural ability to communicate effectively with others. Some people may seem like natural orators, but public speaking skills are not innate. Public speaking is a learned skill that almost anyone can master with knowledge of effective communication skills and practice.

Public speaking skills are highly beneficial a professional, academic, and personal capacity. Public speaking can help you learn how to communicate your ideas clearly, think critically, and navigate job interviews and presentations with ease.

John F. Kennedy is known as one of the most gifted orators in history. Watch this video of his speech on the space effort. Think about what made him such an effective speaker, how much experience he had, and how much practice it took to become the gifted orator he was.

President Kennedy, 1962, Speaking on the space effort at Rice University

A bust of ancient Roman philosopher Marcus Cicero

A Brief History of Rhetoric

The systemization of public speaking began with the rise of democracy in Ancient Greece. The Greeks called public speaking “rhetoric,” which simply means the art of persuasion. For the Greeks, public speaking was a means to persuade the people and the governing powers in a public forum. However, public speaking was also used to inform or praise others.

The Greeks approached public speaking and persuasion the old fashioned way—through public discourse and face-to-face interaction. This was a time when multimedia (i.e., television, radio, newspaper, and internet) could not be used to convey messages to the masses. Public speaking was the only way to get a message out to the people.

While the concept of public speaking has basically remained the same throughout history, this field of communication has gone through many transformations and changes. The way in which societies have understood the importance and use of public speaking has varied and changed over the years.

“A good orator is pointed and impassioned.”
–Marcus Cicero

Public Speaking Through the Ages

Fresco painting of Cicero denouncing Catiline by Cesare Maccari

Classical Period
(480 BC.–400 AD)

The Classical Period gave rise to the art and study of public speaking. Characterized by a wealth of great philosophers, orators, and rhetoricians, these were the times of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero. Public speaking was mainly used as a means to persuade, but Quintilian took his line of thinking further and suggested that public speaking was inherently moral.

Many concepts from the Classical Period are still used in the study of public speaking today. These concepts include Aristotle’s concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos and Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. However, very little was contributed to the rhetorical studies after the death of Quintilian (about 100 AD) until the fall of the Roman Empire (410 AD).

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Why? Who? What? Where?

Elements of Public Speaking

Public speaking involves four specific elements—Why? Who? What? and Where? When preparing for a speech, you must consider each of these elements. You need to know the purpose of your speech (e.g., to entertain, inform, or persuade), your audience, t the reason for the speech, and where the speech will be given.

Each element should be considered carefully as each determines the way in which you will prepare and deliver your speech. Can you identify the elements of public speaking in Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech on human rights?

Eleanor Roosevelt addresses human rights issues on a television program.

Ethical Principles of Public Speaking

The term ethics is very subjective in nature. However, there are a few norms and set principles to follow when considering public speaking. The speaker should demonstrate good character, quote sources accurately, present statistics carefully, use evidence judiciously, avoid manipulating the audience, and demonstrate competency.

While the definition of “good character” varies from person to person, this simply means to approach your audience with empathy and sensitivity. Demonstrating good character by regarding each audience member as valuable and important will establish a rapport and encourage your audience to engage and listen. Even if you are trying to persuade your audience, be as truthful and straightforward as possible. You will typically be able to find credible and reliable information that supports your argument, and there is no need to exaggerate or use sources that have little merit or credibility. Remember, the more credible your sources are, the more credible you are as a speaker.

Young female executive giving presentation

Speaker Anxiety

Anxiety over public speaking is normal. Even the most practiced and well-spoken people can be nervous before addressing an audience. Many techniques to overcome this anxiety exist and can alleviate speaker anxiety. Try to have a positive self-image. Disparaging yourself and thinking negatively can seriously affect your confidence levels. Focus on your strengths and what you have to offer to your audience.

Increase confidence by practicing your speech beforehand, conducting thorough research on your topic, and having a genuine interest in your topic. Practicing your speech in front of someone and asking for feedback can also help with your level of confidence. This gives you a chance to practice your delivery and receive positive feedback and constructive criticism.

Dressing like a professional will also increase confidence and decrease anxiety. If you look confident, you will feel confident. Keep in mind that appropriate attire will vary for each speaking situation. Make sure you are aware of what is expected of you when dressing for a presentation.

Speech: Stage Fright and What to Do About It?

Analyze This

Listen to this clip of Nelson Mandela’s “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, given at the opening of his 1964 trial for sabotage. He was given and served a life sentence. As you listen, think about what made this speech so powerful and memorable. Think about how he uses projection and inflection to convey his sincerity, determination, and courage.

Nelson Mandela, 1964: ‘I am prepared to die‘ speech

Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008.

Speaking Tip of the Week: Projection and Inflection

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Works Cited

“Cicero - Musei Capitolini” by Glauco92 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

“Nelson Mandela-2008 (edit)” by South Africa The Good News / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Audio_of_Mandela_a_1676394a.mp3” Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Author: South Africa The Good News /