Great Courses: Public Speaking

Chances are you had to give a few speeches in school such as a ‘how to’ speech or a persuasive speech assigned to introduce you to the topic of presenting information to a group of people and having them understand it. We’re rarely in a position to stand in front of a captive audience and present unfettered, but speech permeates almost everything in which we engage socially and professionally, and going beyond the basics of a high school presentation to learning how to craft and deliver a solid argument is a must.

Your college education is about next-level learning. The skills that you used to show your 8th grade class how to turn a dollar bill into an origami crane aren’t sufficient for conveying the more complex knowledge you’re about to receive. As you develop your academic or professional skill in a discipline, you’ll need to be better-equipped to present that new knowledge.

Think of the successful people you know, most, if not all, of them are probably great communicators. It isn’t a coincidence; their ability to communicate helped drive their success, and it will boost yours, too.

You’ve put 13 years into formal education and you’re about to put at least 4 more difficult years (and maybe over $100,000) into developing your mind further. You know a lot, but what good is it if you can’t express it to others?

At its core, public speaking is about channeling your knowledge outward in a useful way. Mortimer Adler, one of the editors of the Great Books series, wrote in “How to Speak, How to Listen” that public speaking is a bit like the relationship between a pitcher and catcher in baseball. The speaker, like a pitcher, delivers information for the listener,┬áthe catcher, to receive. They both work together and have equal responsibility.

The pitcher, however, starts off by throwing a pitch that can be caught, and no one has an easy time with a wild pitch.

A course in public speaking will teach you how to collect information and organize it not only so you as the speaker deliver it as intended, but so that the audience can process it effectively. A media presenter I work with testifies that practices gained from his study of public speaking have frequently revealed holes in his material. As he organizes information, he finds gaps in his knowledge that he needs to fill, especially because those gaps will present difficulty for his audience. He says that public speaking is, for the most part, done before you actually say a word, much like actors rehearse for months before they deliver the first line of a play. He’s an effective presenter because planning and organization force him to become an expert.

A syllabus from an NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development class on public speaking details the importance of high-level organization in strong communication. Whereas some attention is given to rhetorical flair, much of the course is about how to arrange information, and how to avoid practices that harm your argument.

Completing a course in public speaking means that you’ll be throwing pitch after accurate pitch, and the catcher won’t have to leap around or stress about where the next ball will end up.

Your public speaking course will help you develop as a pitcher, but as Adler argued, it’s important to understand what it’s like to be a catcher, too. Thinking through both sides of the public speaking dichotomy,┬ábeing the presenter and what it’s like to be the audience, is at the heart of effective communication, and it’s why my friend John is great doctor.

John is exceptionally well-trained, but he shines because of his communication skills. As a medical professional, he has to detail complex information and concepts to people who have no background in medicine, and the stakes are high. He doesn’t want patients to be too scared by information, but he also needs them to take it seriously. If he talks too much or uses the wrong tone, patients can clam up and withhold information that would help him help them.

Just like the media presenter, John knows he has to be on the top of his game with knowledge and organizing information. His audience is usually a single patient, so in his mind he takes on their role to anticipate comprehension problems and to answer as many questions as possible before the patient asks. John has a unique dual responsibility: he has to be informative and be appropriately persuasive so that a patient will undergo an optimal treatment or intervention.

He especially doesn’t want to talk down to his patients; their dignity and comfort is a priority for him in what can be a difficult, stressful time. Developing his communication skills has been an important part of transferring his medical knowledge into action that treats patients successfully.

The same principle applies to many high-stakes professions from financial advising to government work. The people who can synthesize information in a way that others can understand, and perhaps most importantly, in a way they feel good about, succeed, and the ones who can’t frustrate themselves and everyone else.

A College of Charleston course on public speaking outlines the importance of both listening and understanding the listener. In the expected learning outcomes for the class, students are advised on how to analyze their audiences and to serve as a listener themselves ‘regardless of [their] interest in the subject matter.’ The roles of both speaking and listening take careful, deliberate practice, and in any conversation, you’re bound to be doing one or the other.

You might not become a media presenter or a doctor, but you’re going to encounter problems virtually everywhere that are best-solved with effective communication.

The simplest, most common experiences show how important clear, efficient speaking skills are to a successful outcome. We’ve all seen dozens of dissatisfied customers in stores (and have likely been one ourselves) struggle with getting a problem resolved. A knowledgeable customer knows enough about a product or service to detail why it went wrong and shouldn’t have; a less-informed customer can be stifled by a response that they don’t understand. Customers who know the limits of an employee’s or manager’s potential actions can propose a solution that’s workable for their listener, while demanding that the employee give you the product free and compensate you for your time doesn’t go anywhere.

In both cases, the two previous points apply: you’ve got to know your subject and have well-organized information, and you also need to understand your audience. Consider the following situations:

  • A parent who complains angrily about their kid’s low math grade hits a wall. A parent who researches math curriculum and teaching can work with their child’s teacher to find a solution.
  • Think you deserve a raise? Being able to demonstrate your value to a company and to understand your boss’s ability to compensate you increases your chances of getting one.
  • If you want a second date, you’d better do well with the first date. The better you communicate and know your listener, the better people will get along with you and enjoy talking with you.

From dealing with a difficult airline to professional networking and dinner parties, you get the best result when people can follow along with what you’re saying and participate in a conversation comfortably. Developing your communication skills while you’re young pays dividends for a lifetime.

There’s really no limit on developing communication skills, which is why President Obama (and every executive) has a team of people who evaluate his ideas and give feedback. A formal course in public speaking allows you to get comfortable with and take advantage of peer criticism, and your own criticism will be encouraged and expected. It’s an outstanding (and rare) opportunity to have your speech analyzed, and it’s an equally valuable exercise in how to offer useful criticism to others in a professional, constructive way.

By the end of college, you’ll have put 17 years and about 80% of your life into your education. To get the most out of that in both your professional and personal lives, you’ll need to be able to speak effectively and be a great listener, otherwise, all that knowledge you’ve accumulated has nowhere to go.