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Friday, October 4, 2013

Introduction to Studying Public Speaking

From the American Communication Association.


Public speaking is a deceivingly complex activity. At the heart of public speaking is communication, which we’ve all been doing since we were small. It would seem, then, public speaking is something that comes natural and is very easy to do. This, however, is not the case. Public speaking is not everyday conversation. Public speaking is much more formal and there is much more social importance of what we are speaking about. For example, Al Gore’s presentations on global warming are highly organized and highly important to the world. We do not expect that he would talk in a similar manner to his family at home. The topic or content is not the only formal aspect of public speaking; the delivery is also highly formal. We do not see any President deliver the State of the Union of Inaugural address informally. The President has practiced considerably and has the exact wording of the speech polished.
These examples are from the political sphere and that is not surprising given that the study of public speaking arose in the wake of some very messy politics. Around 476 B.C.E., a tyrant named Thrasybulus took the land and property of those in Syracuse who disagreed with him and gave it to the people who supported him. Naturally, the citizens quickly ousted Thrasybulus and wanted their property back, which they did by presenting their case in court. Those who appeared before the court found that the ability to speak and argue well made them successful in regaining what was rightfully theirs. On the other hand, those who could present a better argument than the original land-owner kept what Thrasybulus had given them. In contemporary society, we have lawyers who are specifically trained in the content of the law as well as the ability to present arguments in court.
Now that we know why public speaking was important in the Classical world, what is the reason for studying public speaking today? Odds are you will never have to argue your own position in court. But, like the citizens of Syracuse, you might want to address something that is worthwhile to you. You may believe strongly in fighting for social justice or that large corporations would destroy your small town community. You may believe that your school’s raising of tuition is detrimental or you may believe just the opposite. Presenting your thoughts and opinions in a clear and coherent fashion will only add to the value of your speech. This is one of the main reasons why we study public speaking today.
Typically, we speak publicly about issues that are not clear cut. Like the citizens of Syracuse, both parties had claims to the property. If you decide to speak out about the social injustices of your community; what you may legitimately believe in and speak to, someone else may legitimately believe and speak to just the opposite. By studying public speaking we are learning the means by which we can have our positions—our thoughts and opinions—accepted.
One way to understand this purpose of public speaking is to turn to the metaphor of the Marketplace of Ideas. The Marketplace of Ideas claims that if everyone puts out their ideas the best ideas will win out and the weak ideas will not survive. But there are problems with this idea. The Marketplace of Ideas theory assumes that some ideas are inherently better than others. But there is nothing inherent about any idea that makes it better or worse than any other idea. There are numerous examples from our national history that demonstrate this. For example, at one point, racial inequality was considered the “best idea.” However, people soon recognized that there is nothing inherent about anyone that makes them better or worse than anyone else and consequently took a stand against what they saw as an injustice and fought to overcome it.
What this flaw of the Marketplace of Ideas tells us is that no position or evidence is self-evident. To have our position accepted we have to not only find evidence but interpret it. For example, according to the United States Department of Justice there were 60 executions in 2005, 53 in 2006, and 42 in 2007. What does this data alone tell us? Does it tell us that capital punishment is, for example, effective at deterring crime? Or does it tell us the opposite? I think the case can be made either way. We can see that there are less and less executions by year, so perhaps capital punishment is a deterrent. On the other hand, there are still executions occurring, so capital punishment may not be a complete deterrent. What this example hopefully demonstrates is that when we speak publicly about an issue and want our position accepted, we must offer a clear and convincing interpretation of our thoughts and opinions in a understandable and, hopefully, eloquent manner.

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