Department of Communication

Public Speaking: The Basics

Presenting a good speech requires practice and knowledge. There are a few basics to get started.

Approaching the Speaking Situation: Audience, Occasion, Purpose

Structuring The Speech

Argument: Claims, Reasons, and Evidence

Oral Discourse and Extemporaneous Delivery

Approaching the Speaking Situation: Audience, Occasion, Purpose

Communication, both spoken and written, is always addressed to an audience, a set of listeners or readers you are intending to convey information to or have some effect upon. Public speaking differs from written communication in that the audience is present, gathered for some occasion. That occasion has norms and expectations that a speaker must recognize. Finally, a public speaker has some purpose, something they are trying to accomplish or set in motion. Good public speaking always accounts for these three components.

Audience. Speakers communicate differently to different audiences. To take a simple example, people tell their grandmothers about their new “significant other” in a different way than they tell their best friend. Similarly, people speak about trees differently with their high school biology teacher than they do with their younger siblings; and speakers often need to make arguments about public policy differently to Republicans than to Democrats. Two main questions guide audience adaptation in a speaking situation: Who are they? What qualities about them are relevant?

Who are they? Distinguishing general from specific audiences is useful. A general audience is everyone who will hear the speech or read the paper. A specific audience, on the other hand, is that subset of the general audience who the speaker particularly wants to reach, or to reach in a different way than the rest of the group. In an audience with varying degrees of knowledge on a subject, for instance, a speaker might want to pitch their comments primarily to non-experts (while at the same time not saying anything that a specialist would find objectionable). In the classroom, students may be speaking to the entire group but making a special effort to address the professor's expectations.

What qualities about them are relevant? Audiences vary in values, knowledge, style of communication, and intellectual capacity—among other qualities. Depending on the topic and purpose, effectiveness could be influenced by whether the audience is young or old, rich or poor, female or male, highly religious or less believing, college graduates or high school dropouts, ethnic minorities or majorities. In addition, audiences carry different expectations to a speaking occasion: some want to be there, others do not; some want to be entertained, others are looking to be informed; some are open to being persuaded while others are unlikely to change their minds anytime soon; some expect a highly polished presentation with sophisticated visual aids while others are looking for less formal comments. All of these expectations help shape a speaking situation.

Occasion. Unlike much written communication, a public speaking situation occurs at a specific time and place. With regard to time, the speech can be affected by events that have very recently occurred (e.g. the morning's news may be fresh in your audience's mind); by the time of day (8:00 A.M. lectures are different than 10:00 A.M. lectures); and by the fact that it comes after or before other speeches. Place matters too--different-sized rooms make a difference for visual aides and intimacy.

There is also a reason that the speech is happening, the occasion for which the audience has gathered. Are you speaking at a wedding or a funeral? An academic lecture series or a public meeting of concerned citizens? A mandatory assignment for freshman communication students? Each of these occasions has different norms for speaking, calling for speakers to operate in different modes--from formal to informal, from light to heavy, humorous to serious, conversational to highly practiced.

Purpose. Speakers hope to accomplish general and specific purposes when they communicate. For most speaking in college and beyond, there are two general purposes: to inform or to persuade. The line between informing and persuading is not absolute, and many speeches will do some of both. Nonetheless, they are useful guides for speakers.

When a speaker seeks to inform, they want the audience to leave the speech knowing more than they knew beforehand. Speakers may want to explain an idea or process, share new information, or show how to do something.

When a speaker aims to persuade an audience, they want them to adopt a new position or belief, to change their minds, or to be moved to action. Persuasion calls a speaker to advocate one position among others that are possible and be willing to defend it against challenges.

In addition to a general purpose and speaker typically has a range of more specific goals for their speech. They may want to get a few laughs, to build upon a classmate's speech, to reach a selected group of listeners, to show themselves to be competent to potential employers, or to create controversy. A successful speech requires a clear sense of general and specific purpose to guide how selection and presentation of ideas and words.

Structuring the Speech

Organizing speeches serves two important functions. First, organization helps improve clarity of thought in a systematic way. Second, organization increases the likelihood that the speech will be effective. Audiences are unlikely to understand disorganized speeches and even less likely to think that disorganized speakers are reliable or credible. Speeches are organized into three main parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.

The introduction of the speech establishes the first, crucial contact between the speaker and the audience. For most classroom speeches, the introduction should last less than a minute. The introduction needs to accomplish three things:

Focus your audience's attention. Speakers must have an “attention grabber” to interest the audience—a joke, astonishing fact, or anecdote. (Rhetorical questions like “Haven’t you ever wondered how…” are notoriously ineffective.) The introduction is the place where the main claim or idea should be stated very clearly to give the audience a sense of the purpose of the speech. Speakers need to orient the audience and make connections between what they know or are already interested in and the speech topic.

Establish goodwill and credibility. Many people believe the most important part of persuasion was ethos, or the character the speaker exhibited to the audience. The audience needs to see the speaker as someone to listen to attentively and sympathetically. Ethos is generated by both delivery style and content of the speech. Making eye contact with the audience and displaying confidence in voice and body are two important ways to establish ethos. In addition, if you express ideas that are original and intelligent, you will show “intellectual character.” Audiences pay attention to habits of thought that are interesting and worth listening to.

Give a preview. Mentioning the main points to be covered in the body prepares the audience to listen for them. Repetition is an important aspect of public speaking, for listening is an imperfect art, and audience members nearly always tune out in parts--sometimes to think about previous parts of the speech, sometimes for other reasons. The preview should end with a transition, a brief phrase or a pause to signal to the audience that the speech is moving out of the introduction and into the body.

The body follows and is itself structured by a mode of organization, a logical or culturally specific pattern of thinking about ideas, events, objects, and processes. Having a mode of organization means grouping similar material together and linking the component parts together with transitions. Good transitions show the relation between parts of a speech. They display the logic of the speech. Common transition phrases include: in addition to, furthermore, even more, next, after that, then, as a result, beyond that, in contrast, however, and on the other hand. One special type of transition is called the internal summary, a brief restatement of the main point being completed.

In the body, the fewer the main points the better. For short classroom speeches, under 10 minutes, speeches should not have more than three main points. For longer speeches, more than five main points ensures that audiences will have trouble following and remembering the speech. In the speech, main points should be clearly stated and "signposted," marked off as distinct and important to the audience. Transitions often serve to signpost new points, as do pauses before an important idea. Additionally, speakers might number main points—first, second, third or first, next, finally. Always make it easy for the audience to recognize and follow key ideas.

There are several common modes of organizing the information in the body of your speech:

Temporal organization groups information according to when it happened or will happen. Types of temporal patterns include chronological (in the sequence it occurred) and reverse chronological (from ending back to start). Inquiry order is one special mode of temporal organization useful in presenting some kinds of research: here you organize the body in accord with the unfolding processes of thinking and gathering data, taking the audience from the initial curiosity and questions to final results.

Cause-effect is a related mode of organization, showing how one event brings about another. Cause-effect, like other temporal modes, may be used for past, present, or future events and processes. Cause-effect can also be reversed, from effect back to cause.

Spatial patterns group and organize your speech based on physical arrangement of its parts. If a speech is describing a place, a physical object, or a process of movement--downtown Mercer, a plant cell, or the Battle of Shiloh--spatial patterns can be useful.

Topical designs are appropriate when the subject matter has clear categories of division. Government in the United States, for instance, falls into federal, state, and local categories; or into executive, legislative, and judicial branches; into elected and appointed officials. Categories like these can help divide the subject matter to organize the main points.

Compare/contrast takes two or more entities and draws attention to their differences and/or similarities. Sometimes speakers explain a difficult subject by comparing it with an easier, more accessible one--to explain nuclear fusion with the stages of high school romance, for instance. The use of analogies often assists in audience understanding.


Following a transition from the body of the speech, the conclusion follows. The conclusion should be somewhat shorter than the introduction and accomplishes two purposes: summarize main ideas and give the speech a sense of closure and completion. Good conclusions might refer back to the introduction, offer an analogy or metaphor that captures the main idea, or leave the audience with a question or a challenge of some type. Brief quotations can also make effective conclusions (just as they can make effective openings for introductions).

Argument: Claims, Reasons, Evidence

Critical thinking means being able to make good arguments. Arguments are claims backed by reasons that are supported by evidence. Argumentation is a social process of two or more people making arguments, responding to one another--not simply restating the same claims and reasons--and modifying or defending their positions accordingly.

Claims are statements about what is true or good or about what should be done or believed. Claims are potentially arguable. "A liberal arts education prepares students best" is a claim, while "I didn't like the book" is not. The rest of the world can't really dispute whether I liked the book or not, but they can argue about the benefits of liberal arts. "I thought the movie was cool" is not an arguable statement, but "the movie was Paul Newman's best" is, for people can disagree and offer support for their different opinions.

Reasons are statements of support for claims, making those claims something more than mere assertions. Reasons are statements in an argument that pass two tests:
Reasons are answers to the hypothetical challenge to your claim:
· “Why do you say that?”
· “What reason can you give me to believe that?” If a claim about liberal arts education is so challenged, a response with a reason could be: “It teaches students to think independently.”

Reasons can be linked to claims with the word because:
· Liberal arts is best [claim] because it teaches students independent thinking [reason];
· That was Newman's best [claim] because it presented the most difficult role [reason];
· Global warming is real [claim] because the most reputable science points in that direction [reason].
· Everyone should stop wearing seat belts [claim] because it would save lives [reason].

If reasons do not make sense in the hypothetical challenge or the 'because' tests, there is probably something wrong with the logic of the argument. Passing those tests, however, does not ensure that arguments are sound and compelling.

Evidence serves as support for the reasons offered and helps compel audiences to accept claims. Evidence comes in different sorts, and it tends to vary from one academic field or subject of argument to another. Scientific arguments about global warming require different kinds of evidence than mealtime arguments about Paul Newman's movies. Evidence answers challenges to the reasons given, and it comes in four main types:

Specific instances include examples, case studies, and narratives. Each can be an effective mode of building support for a reason or claim. In a public speech, they offer audiences a way to see an idea illustrated in a particular case. To be effective, specific instances need to be representative of the broader trend or idea they are supporting. With an example as evidence, someone arguing against seat belt use might say "Last year my cousin crashed her car off a bridge and would have drowned if she were wearing her seatbelt" as evidence (the answer to "Why do you believe that?" question.) An opponent might challenge whether this example was a representative one: surely there are many more car crashes that do not end in water, so this one instance is not a fair gauge of the relative safety of not wearing seat belts.

Statistics include raw numbers (117 million visitors to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,), averages ('women's bowling teams drink on average two pitchers less then men's'), statistical probabilities ('crossing North Main during rush hour increases your chances of death 20%'), and statistical trends ('applications have risen 40% over the past three years'). In public speeches, statistics have the advantage of seeming objective, authoritative, and factual, but critical audiences will want to know about the sources and methods for determining your statistical evidence.

Testimony, or appeals to authority, come in two main types, eyewitness and expert. Eyewitness or first-hand testimonies are reports from people who directly experience some phenomenon. If a speaker is arguing about toxic waste dumps, a quotation from someone living next to a dump would fall into this category. First-hand testimony can help give the audience a sense of being there. Experts may also rely on direct experience, but their testimony is also backed by more formal knowledge, methods, and training. Supplementing the neighbor's account with testimony from an environmental scientist, who specializes in toxic waste sites, is an appeal to expertise. When using testimony in arguments, you should always make sure the authority you are appealing to is in fact qualified to speak on the topic being discussed.

Oral Discourse and Extemporaneous Delivery

The spoken word differs from the written. Audiences for public speeches do not have the benefit of being able to go back and re-read sentences. They cannot look at a page and see section headings or new paragraph indentations. Public audiences have a more limited capacity to comprehend complicated ideas and to take in long sentences and difficult or dense language. Public speakers have to compensate for these limits by using the principles of repetition of content, clarity of structure, and simplicity of language.

Repetition. Repetition is a fundamental part of most good public speeches. An old public speaking adage goes something like: “tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” By the end of a speech, an audience should have absolutely no question about what the central idea or main claim is. To make sure that happens, state that idea clearly in the introduction of your speech, tie the information and arguments of the body to it in explicit ways, and restate the idea again in your conclusion. Audiences are more likely to miss or forget important information if you do not repeat and restate it.

Clarity. Clarity of structure means that ideas are logically grouped into categories the audience can easily understand. In addition, just as paragraph indents and underlining alert readers to new or important ideas, transitions and signposts help listeners recognize new 'paragraphs' and key points of the speech. Brief pauses can signal to listeners that the speaker is about to say something important or is moving onto the next main point. Phrases like "most important," "I am claiming that," "the crucial point is this," call your listeners' attention to what follows them and act as verbal underlining.

Simplicity. Simplicity in language is crucial to conveying information effectively. Oral discourse differs from written in its use of language. Oral discourse is often best when it uses the first person, “I” and “we.” Such language gives the speech a sense of immediacy and helps the speaker to connect with the audience. In addition, good speeches will often use less formal language--contractions, sentence fragments, selected slang expressions. Finally, oral language needs to be less dense and jargon-laden then some kinds of written language, especially academic language. When written papers are read out loud, they almost never make effective speeches.

While there are several effective modes of delivery, extemporaneous speaking is the most adaptable and time efficient. Learning it is also an excellent way of sharpening critical thinking. Extemporaneous speeches are developed through outlining ideas, not writing them out word-for-word. They are practiced ahead of time, rehearsed and re-rehearsed (extemporaneous speeches are not impromptu), using a keyword outline of single words and short, 3-5 word phrases. The speech is not memorized but instead is concentrating on the main ideas; each time a speaker practices and delivers the speech, wording comes out a little differently. Extemporaneous delivery gives the speech freshness, for it doesn't sound canned and over-rehearsed. Additionally, this flexible form of delivery allows a speaker to make adjustments to their speech in response to non-verbal signals from the audience--signs of confusion, displeasure, curiosity, or excitement.

Extemporaneous delivery allows speakers to make eye contact with the audience—one of the best ways to connect with them and keep them involved in the speech. Eye contact is an important way to establish a speaker's credibility and make a speech compelling; when a speaker relies too much on notes, they are potentially losing their audience and running the risk of looking unprepared.

Verbal and nonverbal communication are important in public speaking, helping to make a speech clear and compelling to an audience. Developing good vocal delivery means focusing first and foremost on being heard clearly: a speaker must speak loudly enough to be heard by everyone, articulate words sharply so they can be understood, and speak slowly enough so that the audience can easily take in the ideas. In addition, avoid monotone delivery and be engaged enough with the speech to communicate interest. Effective bodily delivery begins with this simple maxim: do not distract the audience with extraneous movement. Nervous pacing, standing cross-armed or hands-in-pockets for long stretches, turning from the audience and talking into a visual aid, gestures unrelated to the verbal message--all of these distract from the content of the speech and should be avoided.