19 Common Speech Situations

if you’ve paid attention to the quotations that open each lesson in this book, you might have noticed that Mark Twain appears frequently. Twain is best remembered as an author, most notably for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But you might not be aware that he was more famous in his own day as a public speaker and lecturer. In fact, Twain traveled extensively throughout the world on the lecture circuit, entertaining audiences around the globe with his wit and humor.

We tend to think of public speaking as a formal lecture given from on high before an audience that has gathered to listen. But the fact is that public speaking includes a wide variety of applications and settings, from answering a teacher’s question in class to addressing the world via television. In this lesson, we’ll address some of the more likely situations in which you’ll be speaking publicly.




–coMMon SPeecH SituationS–

Making a Presentation

This is a very common occurrence, whether you are a student asked to present information to class, or a pro- fessional in the business world asked to provide a proj- ect update to your coworkers. You might be given some lead time for preparation, but you might just as likely fnd yourself called upon to speak on the spur of the moment.

Whether given advance notice or not, the goal is to appear as though you are well prepared. As we have said many times throughout these lessons, appearance is half the battle. If your audience believes you are con- fdent in what you are saying, they will be far more likely to accept your message.

All the lessons in this book apply in this situation. If at all possible, you’ll want to include visual aids to help get your ideas across. You’ll want to make eye contact with your audience, and you’ll want to be sure that your voice is clearly heard and understood. If you have time to prepare, you’ll want to create an outline, and you’ll want to expand your thoughts under several major sub-points, complete with explanations and illustrations of each.

The major asset you have in this situation is that you will probably know your audience quite well, whether they are fellow students or coworkers. This will enable you to assess how much they already know, helping you to focus on areas that will be new to them. You will also be able to gauge their reactions to your presentation, which is important in the offce environ- ment: Will they be pleased with your report, or will it produce resistance or disappointment? Knowing these things in advance will help you prepare for questions.

Public Meetings

I live in a small town, and I attend the town hall meet- ings frequently. My general purpose is simply to enjoy watching, taking advantage of something that is unique

to America: the freedom to participate in the political process. But there are times when I need to participate more vocally, and I fnd myself speaking before an audience—actually, before two audiences: the town council, and the voters.

Such public forums bring with them a few distin- guishing features worth mentioning. First, you may well fnd yourself addressing two or more different groups of listeners, each with radically different views on your topic. My town recently went through some fairly dramatic public meetings on zoning issues, and I found myself speaking to three distinct groups: the voters, most of whom vehemently opposed the devel- opment proposal; the “interested parties” and their lawyers (those directly involved in the proposed devel- opment); and the town council, allegedly neutral and impartial on the entire subject.

You will need to be sensitive to all the groups in your audience, knowing something of each group’s views on the topic and how each will likely respond to your opinions. You will also quickly recognize from what you’ve learned in this book that public meetings will generally involve some sort of persuasive speech, so you should review Lesson 5 on how to create an effective persuasive argument.

Yet this also impinges on another unique feature of public meetings: severely limited time. You will probably not have the luxury of spending 40 minutes to expand and develop on your thesis; you will need to present a compelling argument in less than five minutes—and most local political settings will limit speakers to three minutes at the most. This leaves you with two options: present many points in little detail (our shotgun method), or present one point in greater detail (the rife). Either can be effective, but generally the rife is preferred, since other speakers will likely touch upon other arguments in detail. Just remember to use the courtroom analogy when planning your words: Provide your evidence, explain how it applies to your thesis, then summarize how your one major point proves your opinion to be the right one.


–coMMon SPeecH SituationS–

Other elements of public speaking come into play in this setting, as well. Eye contact, for example, is vitally important—although you may have to focus on one body and more or less ignore the rest of your audi- ence. You will want to connect with those who make the decisions, since they are the ones whom you’re try- ing to persuade. Nevertheless, you will want to speak clearly and be understood by everyone present, and you will always want to be courteous and polite. This last point can be a challenge at emotionally charged public gatherings, but your views will be far more attractive if you are polite.

Special occasions

Weddings, funerals, birthdays, awards ceremonies, graduations, religious observances, extended family gatherings—they’re all part of our lives, and sooner or later we all have to “share a few words” at one or another. You may know in advance that you’ll be called upon to speak, or you might be asked spontaneously— but the end result is the same: Appear as though you are prepared, and appear as though you didn’t prepare in advance.

You’ll need to do this, of course, by preparing in advance! As we’ve said previously, the best way to approach such occasions is to think through what you’ll want to say if asked, jotting some notes on an index card so you don’t forget. Structure your thoughts to be suitable to the occasion and the time limit. Most special occasions will require some brief comments, limited perhaps to fve minutes or less. This is prob- ably not a time to expound in detail on some lengthy topic, nor is it an occasion for persuading your audi- ence on some controversial issue. Keep your thoughts focused on the occasion, and keep them brief. Remember our fundamental rule for special occa- sions: The audience is there to honor the occasion, not to hear you speak.

Stressful Situations

Perhaps it’s time for a raise, but your company has recently been laying off employees. Or perhaps you need to confront the directors of a civic organization concerning policies that have affected you. Maybe you need to make a class presentation that disagrees with the professor’s viewpoints. Life is flled with stress and confrontation, but a skillful public speaker can easily carry the day.

Confrontation naturally breeds hostility, and the most important element of your presentation will be your demeanor. You will want to present a solid case, but you’ll need to do it with humility and courtesy. If you come into the room with an arrogant air of self- righteousness, you’ll lose your audience before you even begin.

For example, you might feel that your work responsibilities have grown far beyond your job description due to the recent layoffs. Don’t approach your boss with an air of grievance or resentment; put yourself in his or her position and recognize that your boss has also been affected by the present crisis. Present your facts and requests, but also remember to acknowl- edge the diffculty of the situation, and do not place the blame on your audience. Create an atmosphere of team cooperation, and your boss will be more likely to join your side.

Finally, you will want to anticipate your audi- ence’s counterpoints. It is not enough simply to build a persuasive argument; you need to anticipate how your listeners will argue against your thesis. This fol- lows the methods we considered in Lesson 18 on han- dling questions from the audience, except that in this situation your entire effectiveness will depend upon how well you address those questions. This form of public speaking actually comes closer to debate than to making a speech, and you will need to prepare yourself to present counterarguments to their counterargu- ments. If you can’t answer any question or argument that might be thrown at you, you aren’t ready to make your presentation.