Teaching a Disliked Subject: Public Speaking

There are fewer skills that will bring more chances for employment, promotion, or general advancement than public speaking; unfortunately, there are also fewer skills that are considered more abhorrent and unpleasant by the general public. How do you even begin to convey the tenets of public speaking when upon mentioning the two words alone- “public speaking”- most of your audience will suddenly find the ground very interesting?

The first step in being able to constructively build your audience’s public speaking skills is to be knowledgeable yourself about the very subject you are relaying. After all, most people do not understand the very rich and ancient history that the art of public speaking encapsulates. While our society enjoys hobbies like football and basketball, more than 2,500 years ago the Greeks were deeply engrossed in speaking publicly in a time where multimedia did not exist. For them, this oral tradition was a blessing, as Quintilian wrote, “God, that all-powerful Creator of the world, has impressed man with no character so proper to distinguish him from other animals, as by the faculty of speech.”

Greek men at a temple where they engaged in discussion and speech

Public speaking may have gone a number of changes since the days of Quintilian, but its impact on defining historical events and times like the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is undeniable. While this was just a short summary of where public speaking came from, I highly encourage reading Rhetorica’s brief history of Ancient Greek Rhetoric which delves a little deeper:

When presenting a public speaking workshop, one of the most important things to instill in the audience is that it is not wrong to be nervous; even the most seasoned public speakers may experience agitation and apprehension before going onto the stage. Depending on who you ask, being nervous is actually a sign that you care about what you are accomplishing. The important lesson to be learned is that the audience should never know that you are uneasy or nervous. This is where the concept of “filler words” comes into play. Filler words are meaningless words, phrases, or even sounds that mark hesitations in speeches. Some commonly known filler words include: um, uh, like, you know, and, so, okay, as well as individualized filler phrases that become obvious from their repetition within the speech. One less commonly noticed filler is actually a sound- when someone clicks their tongue or a “tch” sound that is made when you smack your lips. The use of these filler words can detract greatly from an otherwise well-prepared speech, making the speaker sound nervous, uncertain, and unprepared as the video below underscores:

The change in the quality of his speech is palpable once he removes his use of filler words- his speech is now confident and much more effectively conveys his message. I find videos are often effective when teaching public speaking, as the difference between good speeches and bad becomes audiovisual and the contrast is much more distinguishable to the audience. This video also introduces the audience to the next important part of the lesson: the “personal story.”

The easiest thing for any person to talk about is themselves. This is where the “personal story” becomes important for any kind of speech. The “personal story” is short blurb about a person that can include: their position, the company they work for, an interesting hobby, and a project (whether personal or work-related) that they are currently working on. This kind of “story” becomes so easy for the person to say that it requires virtually no thought. I advise starting every kind of speech with this blurb because not only does it introduce the speaker to their audience, but it gives them time to think about what will be said next. This brings us to an exercise that I recommend for public speaking workshops:

Self-Introduction Speech-

Give participants 5 minutes to come up with their own “personal story” and one by one, bring them up to the front of the room and ask them to introduce themselves to the room. Tell the audience to keep tabs on filler words that the speaker uses and when they have finished speaking, ask one audience member to give positive feedback and another audience member to point out some things to work on.

Tip: Once the participants are a little more comfortable with public speaking, have everyone pull out their keys. Now, have each participant introduce themselves again, but have the audience shake their keys every time they hear a filler word. This is not to shame, or interrupt the speaker, but rather to make them and the audience aware of how easy it is to slip into using filler words.

Introducing yourself, being knowledgeable about the subject of the speech, and making sure that no filler words interrupt your speech are all important components of public speaking; however, in really connecting with the audience and relaying a message, the use of gestures, descriptive language, and deliberate pauses are instrumental. One well-known public speaker who makes ample use of these techniques and more to captivate his audience is former President Barack Obama. I often use the following video to give an example of how the components of public speaking can come together to effectively make the speaker’s point:

While watching videos of seasoned public speakers can inform an audience of techniques and concepts, the only way to cement this new knowledge is to practice speaking publicly. There are many different activities that can be done with participants of a workshop to practice:

  • One vs. one debates (for added difficulty with participants that you are knowledgeable with, pick a side that they are normally against)
  • Storytelling (e.g. “your most embarrassing story”)
  • One-minute speeches (one person gives the speaker a subject ranging from gardening, to matchboxes and they must talk about it for a full minute)
  • Definitions (each speaker receives a nonsensical word from another player and must provide a plausible definition for it including a history of the word and country of origin)

Many other activities are available that can be tailored to different sized groups and different age groups as well. I encourage visiting the following website for a comprehensive starting list of activities:

Remember that public speaking is an acquired skill, with some people have more to learn than others. Encouragement and instruction is necessary. Happy speaking!