Chapter One – The Importance of Public Speaking

Public Speaking in the Twenty-First Century

Public speaking is the process of designing and delivering a message to an audience. Effective public speaking involves understanding your audience and speaking goals, choosing elements for the speech that will engage your audience with your topic, and delivering your message skillfully. Good public speakers understand that they must plan, organize, and revise their material in order to develop an effective speech. This book will help you understand the basics of effective public speaking and guide you through the process of creating your own presentations. We’ll begin by discussing the ways in which public speaking is relevant to you and can benefit you in your career, education, and personal life.

In a world where people are bombarded with messages through television, social media, and the Internet, one of the first questions you may ask is, “Do people still give speeches?” Well, type the words “public speaking” into or, and you will find more than two thousand books with the words “public speaking” in the title. Most of these and other books related to public speaking are not college textbooks. In fact, many books written about public speaking are intended for very specific audiences: A Handbook of Public Speaking for Scientists and Engineers (by Peter Kenny), Excuse Me! Let Me Speak!: A Young Person’s Guide to Public Speaking (by Michelle J. Dyett-Welcome), Professionally Speaking: Public Speaking for Health Professionals (by Frank De Piano and Arnold Melnick), and Speaking Effectively: A Guide for Air Force Speakers (by John A. Kline). Although these different books address specific issues related to nurses, engineers, or air force officers, the content is basically the same. If you search for “public speaking” in an online academic database, you’ll find numerous articles on public speaking in business magazines (e.g., BusinessWeekNonprofit World) and academic journals (e.g., Harvard Business ReviewJournal of Business Communication). There is so much information available about public speaking because it continues to be relevant even with the growth of technological means of communication. As author and speaker Scott Berkun writes in his blog, “For all our tech, we’re still very fond of the most low tech thing there is: a monologue.” [1] People continue to spend millions of dollars every year to listen to professional speakers. For example, attendees of the 2010 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, which invites speakers from around the world to share their ideas in short, eighteen-minute presentations, paid six thousand dollars per person to listen to fifty speeches over a four-day period.

Technology can also help public speakers reach audiences that were not possible to reach in the past. Millions of people heard about and then watched Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” online. In this captivating speech, Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who retired at age forty-six after developing inoperable tumors, delivered his last lecture to the students, faculty, and staff. This inspiring speech was turned into a DVD and a best-selling book that was eventually published in more than thirty-five languages.[2] 

We realize that you may not be invited to TED to give the speech of your life or create a speech so inspirational that it touches the lives of millions via YouTube; however, all of us will find ourselves in situations where we will be asked to give a speech, make a presentation, or just deliver a few words. In this chapter, we will first address why public speaking is important, and then we will discuss models that illustrate the process of public speaking itself.


The Importance of Public Speaking

Oral communication skills were the number one skill that college graduates found useful in the business world, according to a study by sociologist Andrew Zekeri.[3] That fact alone makes learning about public speaking worthwhile. However, there are many other benefits of communicating effectively for the hundreds of thousands of college students every year who take public speaking courses. Let’s take a look at some of the personal benefits you’ll get both from a course in public speaking and from giving public speeches.

Benefits of Public Speaking Courses

In addition to learning the process of creating and delivering an effective speech, students of public speaking leave the class with a number of other benefits as well. Some of these benefits include

  • developing critical thinking skills,
  • fine-tuning verbal and nonverbal skills,
  • overcoming fear of public speaking.

Developing Critical Thinking Skills

One of the very first benefits you will gain from your public speaking course is an increased ability to think critically. Problem solving is one of many critical thinking skills you will engage in during this course. For example, when preparing a persuasive speech, you’ll have to think through real problems affecting your campus, community, or the world and provide possible solutions to those problems. You’ll also have to think about the positive and negative consequences of your solutions and then communicate your ideas to others. At first, it may seem easy to come up with solutions for a campus problem such as a shortage of parking spaces: just build more spaces. But after thinking and researching further you may find out that building costs, environmental impact from loss of green space, maintenance needs, or limited locations for additional spaces make this solution impractical. Being able to think through problems and analyze the potential costs and benefits of solutions is an essential part of critical thinking and of public speaking aimed at persuading others. These skills will help you not only in public speaking contexts but throughout your life as well. As we stated earlier, college graduates in Zekeri’s study rated oral communication skills as the most useful for success in the business world. The second most valuable skill they reported was problem-solving ability, so your public speaking course is doubly valuable!

Another benefit to public speaking is that it will enhance your ability to conduct and analyze research. Public speakers must provide credible evidence within their speeches if they are going to persuade various audiences. So your public speaking course will further refine your ability to find and utilize a range of sources.


Fine-Tuning Verbal and Nonverbal Skills

A second benefit of taking a public speaking course is that it will help you fine-tune your verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Whether you competed in public speaking in high school or this is your first time speaking in front of an audience, having the opportunity to actively practice communication skills and receive professional feedback will help you become a better overall communicator. Often, people don’t even realize that they twirl their hair or repeatedly mispronounce words while speaking in public settings until they receive feedback from a teacher during a public speaking course. People around the United States will often pay speech coaches over one hundred dollars per hour to help them enhance their speaking skills. You have a built-in speech coach right in your classroom, so it is to your advantage to use the opportunity to improve your verbal and nonverbal communication skills.


Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking

An additional benefit of taking a public speaking class is that it will help reduce your fear of public speaking. Whether they’ve spoken in public a lot or are just getting started, most people experience some anxiety when engaging in public speaking. Heidi Rose and Andrew Rancer evaluated students’ levels of public speaking anxiety during both the first and last weeks of their public speaking class and found that those levels decreased over the course of the semester.[4] One explanation is that people often have little exposure to public speaking. By taking a course in public speaking, students become better acquainted with the public speaking process, making them more confident and less apprehensive. In addition, you will learn specific strategies for overcoming the challenges of speech anxiety. We will discuss this topic in greater detail in Chapter 20.

As the famous political orator William Jennings Bryan once noted, “The ability to speak effectively is an acquirement rather than a gift” (Carnegie, 1955). Use this class as an opportunity to overcome your fears!



Benefits of Engaging in Public Speaking

Once you’ve learned the basic skills associated with public speaking, you’ll find that being able to effectively speak in public has profound benefits, including

  • influencing the world around you,
  • developing leadership skills,
  • becoming a thought leader.

Influencing the World around You

If you don’t like something about your local government, then speak out about your issue! One of the best ways to get our society to change is through the power of speech. Common citizens in the United States and around the world, like you, are influencing the world in real ways through the power of speech. Just type the words “citizens speak out” in a search engine and you’ll find numerous examples of how common citizens use the power of speech to make real changes in the world—for example, by speaking out against “fracking” for natural gas (a process in which chemicals are injected into rocks in an attempt to open them up for fast flow of natural gas or oil) or in favor of retaining a popular local sheriff. One of the amazing parts of being a citizen in a democracy is the right to stand up and speak out, which is a luxury many people in the world do not have. So if you don’t like something, be the force of change you’re looking for through the power of speech.


Instruction, Imitation, and Practice

The most successful model for teaching public speaking (and the one this class follows) relies on a mix of instruction, imitation, and practice.

  • Instruction reinforces the lessons learned from the history of public speaking study. The instruction in this class draws most explicitly from the rhetorical tradition. We will study principles of argumentation, arrangement, and style.
  • Imitation means that when studying a performance skill like speaking, we benefit by identifying and imitating the best practices of skilled speakers. I don’t mean stealing or plagiarizing, I mean trying to link phrases together in a manner similar to a speaker we think sounds good. There are a number of speeches that you will watch this semester (online and in class). The intent of these speeches is to show you some best practices. You shouldn’t simply watch a speech like you would a television show; you should seek to find some verbal or nonverbal behaviors that you would like to imitate. As Bandura noted with his Social Learning Theory (1977), we learn through observation. 
  • Practice is the most obvious leg of public speaking study. If you are going to get better at public speaking, you must be able to apply the lessons of instruction and imitation by practicing your speeches. The nice thing about public speaking is that you can practice it almost anywhere. However, your practice time is best spent by speaking in situations where you have an attentive audience (as opposed to a curious dog or a sleeping roommate).

Myths about Public Speaking


You can’t learn to be a good public speaker; you have to be born a naturally good speaker. Everyone can become a better public speaker through study and practice. I love to ski. I wasn’t born being a good skier; rather, I grew up skiing. I skied as often as I could, and I got better. The same is true of public speaking. You were born with the basic equipment needed for speaking in public—you just need some skill development.

I can only learn public speaking through practice alone. This misconception often works in conjunction with the misconception #1 and #3. I see this as a hugely egoistic argument since it assumes that only you know what good public speaking is and only you know how to improve. Let me return to the skiing analogy (though you could substitute any sports or skills analogy, like playing a musical instrument). Most people develop their skiing ability by simply skiing a lot. But if you want to get better, you need to seek outside information about the principles of skiing. That’s why people pay a lot of money for ski lessons. Ski instructors can both model good skiing behaviors and they can talk about the physics of metal on snow and the physiology of your muscles on skis.

Public speaking is just delivery (speech content doesn’t matter). This is like saying that a good essay is simply one that has good grammar or punctuation. A good essay should have good grammar and punctuation, but it also needs good content. The same holds true of a speech. When we listen to a speech, we judge the speaker according to what they say as well as how they say it. Think about presidential debates. After any presidential debate, pundits flood the airwaves and pick apart both content and delivery, but they spend far more time discussing what the candidates said.

Reading a speech is the best way to ensure a good speech. There may be similarities between writing and speaking, but they also differ in many important respects. A speech is an act of communication with a specific audience. Reading a speech undermines this (and as we will see, can actually make you more nervous). If you were having a conversation with a friend about your classes and suddenly started reading a prepared set of comments, the conversation would sink. Why? A conversation is dynamic and relies on communicating with the other person. A speech is like a conversation in this way; you are engaging in a shared act of communication with the audience. Remember, this is a public speaking class, not a public reading class!



A class on public speaking is essentially a rhetoric class. The word rhetoric is often used to indicate that the speaker is lying (“his record doesn’t match his rhetoric”) or that the speaker is filling air with meaningless talk (“let’s move past all the rhetoric and get down to business”). It is true that term has gotten a lot of bad press over the past 2,000 years or so, but the study of rhetoric is the study of what is persuasive. We are certainly not the first group to study what goes into a dynamic and persuasive speech. The ancient Greeks and Romans spent a lot of time thinking and writing about good speaking. Throughout history, thinkers and charlatans alike have devoted a considerable amount of effort to figuring out what sounds good, looks good, and works to motivate various audiences.

Definitions of Rhetoric  

wood carving showing a seated figure holding a book, labeled "Rhetorica"
Rhetorica. Pixabay. [1]

Since the study of rhetoric has been around for so many years, there are a number of different definitions for the word. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case the available means of persuasion.” Plato held that rhetoric is “the art of winning the soul by discourse.” The Roman thinker Quintilian suggested simply that rhetoric is the art of speaking well. John Locke however held a dimmer view of the art and wrote that rhetoric is a “powerful instrument of error and deceit.” The contemporary writer Gerard Hauser suggests, “Rhetoric is communication that attempts to coordinate social action. For this reason, rhetorical communication is explicitly pragmatic. Its goal is to influence human choices on specific matters that require immediate attention.”For the purposes of this class, we will define rhetoric as “the study and art of effective speaking.” This doesn’t begin to capture all the ways in which rhetoric could be (and has been) defined, but it does focus our study on the aspects of rhetoric most relevant to our present concern.

Five Main Parts to Rhetoric

Earlier thinkers argued that the study and practice of rhetoric involved five main parts:

INVENTION: The first thing that must go into a good speech is good material. Invention means finding or thinking up good speech content. Basically, good speakers know what they’re talking about. There are a number of different strategies that we will study to help prime the mental pump. Our focus in this class is on good arguments (solid claims supported with good evidence). Aristotle suggested that the speech content was either artistic (you had to think it up) or inartistic (it already existed). Proving your claims requires both inartistic and artistic proofs. We all know that good arguments require evidence, so let’s look at the three proofs or appeals to your audience:

  • LOGOS: We convince people through our use of logic. So, I can argue that it rained last night by pointing to the puddles on the ground. I use the evidence of rain puddles to make a claim about something that I didn’t see, relying on the basic logical premise that “puddles generally indicate recent rain.” This isn’t the most contentious of arguments, you say. Very true, but the principle is the same. We use appeals to logic to help support our arguments. Economists make logical arguments all the time. They have evidence about current trends, but they argue about where to invest money based on logic— they don’t know 100% what the market will do, but they can try to figure out where to invest based on historical precedent, prevailing wisdom, and informal logic.
  • PATHOS: We persuade people by appealing to their emotions. Of course, we are not simply logical animals, we have emotions, and these often shape how we see and understand the world. As Dale Carnegie once said, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” Now an appeal to pathos doesn’t mean that we simply tug at people’s heart strings, or we try to scare them into acting our way. Of course this happens, but you would be hard pressed to call it good argumentation. Aristotle saw pathos as putting the audience in the right frame of mind. So, if you are arguing for something that might seem unfamiliar to your audience, you would be well advised to tell some personal stories that helped people understand the human element. The commercials you see asking for help in funding starving populations or the ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan singing “In the Arms of the Angel,” rely heavily on pathos. They are trying to evoke your compassion by showing you what the living conditions are like for many in need.
  • ETHOS: We can persuade people by virtue of good character. Aristotle suggested that of the three artistic proofs, ethos was potentially the most persuasive. Do we trust the speaker’s credibility as a person and on the topic? Do we trust that the speaker has our best interests at heart? We can gain ethos by doing all the research that a good speech needs and then demonstrating that ethos by being able to talk about the topic intelligently. We can “borrow” ethos by citing the best research available. Ultimately, though ethos must be earned by showing the audience that you are a credible source on this topic.

A good speech requires you to think about a host of different issues ranging from possible arguments, oppositional arguments, and all the different types of evidence you can use. A good speech also includes a mix of logos, pathos, and ethos. The process of sorting through all this material and deciding on the best for you case is the process of invention.


ARRANGEMENT: Once you determine what your speech will be about and what types of artistic and inartistic proofs you will use, then you need to think about the best possible way to arrange your speech. How much background information do you need to give? How should you arrange your main points? How long or short should the introduction be? In many ways, arranging a speech is more difficult than arranging an essay because a reader can jump around in an essay or go back to re-read, but an audience member must listen to the speaker’s flow of information in chronological time. Given this, you must think about how your audience will hear and understand your speech.

STYLE: Once you know what you will say and the order in which you will say it, then you can begin to focus more on the details of exactly how you will say it. Some speeches are stylistically rich (Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a famous example) while others are more stylistically plain (say, a business presentation), yet both have a type of style. The rhetorician Cicero talked about high, middle, and low styles in public speaking. We are probably familiar with the high style; many political orators use it for famous speeches. In the U.S. the State of the Union Address is usually delivered in a middle or high style. We are also probably familiar with the low style. If not, watch a television talk show; here the style is very casual. Ultimately, style is governed by the topic and the audience you are addressing. In this class, we are concerned most with the middle and middle-high style. You should think strategically about your style and how you audience will hear and understand your words.

MEMORY: This part of rhetoric was really important for speakers in classical Greece and Rome because they delivered really long speeches (often in very high style). It remains important for us because a speech is spoken not read. If you don’t practice your speech, you won’t be familiar with it. If you aren’t familiar with your speech, you will probably read it to us. This is not a public reading class, but a public speaking class. You should not try to memorize your speeches word for word. This will only exacerbate any fear you have of public speaking. However, you should know the main parts of your speech. This comes down to a matter of knowledge and practice. You need to know your material well enough so that you can talk about the topic intelligently (invention). You also need to practice enough so that you know how best to explain this topic to the audience (arrangement and style).

DELIVERY: The final part of a study of rhetoric is the one that people fear the most: standing up in front of an audience and actually delivering the speech. Of course, if you have the invention, arrangement, style, and memory parts down pat, the delivery part shouldn’t give you too many headaches. That said, there are a number of delivery issues that can help or hurt your speech. We will study some of those delivery issues that are most distracting and those techniques that are most beneficial. However, the basic delivery approach we will focus on in this class is conversational delivery. This doesn’t mean simply speaking as you would with your friends about any subject, but finding a style that looks good, sounds good, and helps your ethos.


Finally, as we move forward, consider the ways in which you will use public speaking in your personal life and your career.  You cannot escape public speaking; our time together will be spent helping you to learn the subject of effective public address and will give you the tools necessary to effectively convey messages to others, whenever this time comes.






Public Speaking in the 21st Century from Stand up, Speak out: The practice and ethics of public speaking. Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted. DOI:

  1. Berkun, S. (2009, March 4). Does public speaking matter in 2009? [Web log message]. Retrieved from
  2. Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). Randy Pausch’s last lecture. Retrieved June 6, 2011, from
  3. Zekeri, A. A. (2004). College curriculum competencies and skills former students found essential to their careers. College Student Journal38, 412–422.
  4. Rose, H. M., & Rancer, A. S. (1993). The impact of basic courses in oral interpretation and public speaking on communication apprehension. Communication Reports6, 54–60.

Instruction, Imitation, and Practice from Principles of Public Speaking by Lumen Candela, accessed via 




  1. Image of Rhetorica. Authored by: falco. Located at No Rights Reserved


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