Chapter 1: The Basics of Public Speaking

1.1 – What is Public Speaking?

What is your mental picture when you think about “public speaking”? The President of the United States delivering an inaugural address? A sales representative seeking to persuade clients in a board room? Your minister, priest, or rabbi presenting a sermon at a worship service? Your professor lecturing? A dramatic courtroom scene, probably from Law & Order? Politicians debating before an election? A comedian doing stand-up at a night club?

All of these and more are instances of public speaking.

You are in a public speaking course and probably have mixed emotions. Perhaps you already have some public speaking training or something equivalent, such as theatre, singing, debate club, or student council. These activities can help you in this course, especially in terms of confidence and delivery.

On the other hand, you may be bravely stepping into the world of public speaking for the first time. Or maybe you have some experience, but it was years ago.

Regardless of your starting point, learning about public speaking is an amazing educational opportunity. And, whatever your emotional starting point, you will need to experience and confront a certain amount of fear and anxiety as you participate in this course.

As you may have heard or read, polls indicate public speaking is one of the biggest fears people have. As Jerry Seinfeld said in his stand-up comedy routine,

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. (Garber, 2018)

Before we go any further, though, what do we mean by “public speaking”? The most obvious answer is “talking in front of a group of people.” For the purposes of this class and this book, public speaking is more formal than that.

Public speaking is an organized, face-to-face, prepared, intentional (purposeful) attempt to persuade a group of people (usually five or more) through words, physical delivery, and (at times) visual or audio aids. In almost all cases, the speaker is the focus of attention for a specific amount of time. There still may be some back-and-forth interaction, such as questions and answers with the audience, but the speaker usually holds the responsibility to direct that interaction either during or after the prepared speech has concluded.

Garber (2010) cites two scholars of public speaking from the early 20th century, Edwin Du Bois Shurter and James Albert Winans, who wrote of public speaking as an “enlarged conversation,” and as such it has some similarities to conversations but some major differences, too. As a conversation, it has elements of:

  • awareness of and sensitivity toward your audience (in this case, more than one person);
  • an exchange of explicit messages about content (facts, ideas, information) and less explicit ones about relationship (how you relate to one another, such as trust, liking, respect);
  • a dependence on feedback to know if you are successful in being understood (usually nonverbal in public speaking, but still present);
  • face-to-face communication (though the digital age, coupled with the global pandemic, have increased the number of virtual public speaking events).

Of course, the delivery would have to be “enlarged” or “projected” as well—louder, more fluid, and more energetic, depending on the size and type of room in which you are speaking—and you will be more conscious of the correctness and formality of your language. You might say, “That sucks” in a conversation, but are less likely to do so in front of a large audience in certain situations. If you can keep in mind the basic principle that public speaking is formalized communication with an audience designed to achieve mutual understanding for mutual benefit (like a conversation), rather than a “performance,” you will be able to relate to your audience on the human and personal level.

1.2 – Anxiety and Public Speaking

Why are so many people afraid of public speaking? This is a complex question and the answer is tied to many personal and psychological factors, such as self-efficacy, self-confidence, past experience, training, culture, and context. The term “glossophobia,” combining the two Greek words for “tongue” and “fear or dread,” has been coined to refer to

…a severe fear of public speaking. People who suffer from glossophobia tend to freeze in front of any audience, even a couple of people. They find their mouth dries up, their voice is weak and their body starts shaking. They may even sweat, go red and feel their heart thumping rapidly. (“Do You Suffer From Glossophobia?,” 2015)

This fear may arise in situations such as responding to a professor in class, participating in a job interview, or having to interact with a stranger, not just giving formal speeches.

For many people, fear of public speaking or being interviewed for a job does not rise to the level of a true “phobia” in psychological terms. They are just uncomfortable in public speaking situations and need strategies for addressing the task.

Why Anxiety and Public Speaking?

Scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Stout (“Public Speaking Anxiety,” 2015) explain that anxiety in public speaking can result from one of several misperceptions:

  • “all or nothing” thinking—a mindset that if your speech falls short of “perfection” (an unrealistic standard), then you are a failure as a public speaker;
  • overgeneralization—believing that a single event (such as failing at a task) is a universal or “always” event; and
  • fortune telling—the tendency to anticipate that events will turn out badly, no matter how much practice or rehearsal is done.

Likewise, many students operate under the false belief that intelligence and skill are “fixed.” In their minds, a person is either smart or skilled in something or they are not. Some students apply this false belief to math and science subjects, saying something like “I’m just no good at math and I never will be,” or even worse, “I guess I am just not smart enough to be in college.” As you can tell, these beliefs can sabotage someone’s academic career. Also, unfortunately, the same kind of false beliefs are applied to public speaking and people conclude that because public speaking is hard, they are just not “naturally good” at it and have no inborn skill. They give up on improving and avoid public speaking at all costs.

Along with problematic ways of thinking about one’s learning and growth, two other fears contribute to anxiety in public speaking. The first is fear of failure. This fear can result from several sources: real or perceived bad experiences involving public speaking in the past, lack of preparation, lack of knowledge about public speaking, not knowing the context, and uncertainty about one’s task as a public speaker (such as being thrown into a situation at the last minute).

Such fears are real and justified to some extent because you might lack understanding of the public speaking task or lack good speaking experiences upon which to build. One of the goals and fringe benefits of this course is that you are not just going to learn about public speaking, but you are going to do it—at least seven or eight times—with a real audience. You will overcome some of your fears and feel that you have accomplished something of personal benefit.

The second fear is fear of rejection of one’s self or one’s ideas. This one is more serious in some respects. You may feel rejection because of fear of failure or you may feel that the audience will reject your ideas, or worse, you as a person. Knowing how to approach the public speaking task and explain your ideas can help. However, you should ask yourself deep and probing questions as to why you believe that your audience will reject you because this fear is rooted in a belief. You should ask yourself what possibly false belief is causing your anxiety.

One of the core attitudes an effective and ethical public speaker must have is respect for and empathy with the audience. Your audience in this class is your peers who want to learn and want to get through the class successfully (just like you do). Your audience also includes your instructor who wants to see you succeed in the course as well.

Your audience wants you to succeed if for no other reason than a good speech is more enjoyable to listen to than a poor one. Again, gaining practice in this class with a real, live audience can help you work through the roots of your fear of rejection.

One of the greatest benefits of a public speaking course is having the opportunity to confront such fears and to overcome them—from the safety of a classroom of peers who are all in this together with you. The stakes are fairly low in a college classroom; this is a safe space for you to experience these emotions, confront them, reflect on them, and overcome them. If this is learning you achieve in the course, this will have been one of the most valuable learning experiences of your life.

Beyond dealing with the root fears that may cause you to have a “fright or flight” response when public speaking, there are some practical answers to dealing with fear, which can be reduced if you know how public speaking works. But, there are some other strategies and most have to do with preparation.

Addressing Public Speaking Anxiety

Mental Preparation

If your neighbour’s house was on fire, getting to the phone to call the fire department would be your main concern. You would want to get the address right and express the urgency. That is admittedly an extreme example, but the point is about focus. To mentally prepare, you want to put your focus where it belongs: on the audience and the message. Mindfulness and full attention to the task are vital to successful public speaking. If you are concerned about a big exam or something personal going on in your life, your mind will be divided, and that division will add to your stress.

The main questions to ask yourself are, “Why am I so anxiety-ridden about giving a presentation?” and “What is the worst that can happen?”

You probably won’t know most of your classmates at the beginning of the course, which may add to your anxiety. However, getting to know peers in a public speaking class is one of the first steps to building comfort and trust. Those feelings of comfort and trust are essential to creating the safe learning space where you can wrestle with the challenging emotions that come with public speaking. After a few weeks, you should be developing relationships with your peers and be able to find friendly faces in the audience.

Too often we make situations far worse in our minds than they actually are and we can lose perspective. Building comfort and trust with your peers and instructor will help, as will becoming more comfortable with the classroom environment and the tasks set before you. Immerse yourself in the experience of building trust and comfort so that you can increasingly visualize your audience as a group of people you want to speak to because you know they want you to succeed.

Physical preparation

The first step in physical preparation is adequate sleep and rest. Your class is on a weeknight; go to bed at a reasonable hour. Fatigue impacts your mind and body, limiting your ability to learn or perform.

Secondly, you would be better off to eat something that is protein-based rather than processed or sugar-based before speaking. Famously, Russian chess players eat caviar while playing because of the mental acuity benefits from a pure protein snack. It’s not only decadence; it’s a scientific way to improve performance.

A third suggestion is to wear clothes that you know look good and are comfortable, but also meet the context’s requirements. Most importantly, wear comfortable shoes that give you a firm base for your posture. Flip-flops, high heels, and dress shoes may not fit these categories (though the latter two can be part of the expected dress code in some public speaking contexts).

A final suggestion for physical preparation is to utilize some stretching or relaxation techniques that will loosen your limbs or throat. Essentially, your emotions want you to run away, but the social situation says you must stay, so all that energy for running must go somewhere. The energy might go to your legs, hands, stomach, sweat glands, or skin, with undesirable physical consequences. Tightening and stretching your hands, arms, legs, and throat (through intentional, wide yawns) for a few seconds before speaking can help release some of the tension. Your instructor may be able to help you with these exercises or you can find some on the Internet.

Contextual preparation

The more you can know about the venue where you will be speaking, the better. For this class, of course, it will be your classroom, but for other situations where you might experience “communication apprehension,” you should check out the space beforehand or get as much information as possible. For example, if you were required to give a short talk for a job interview, you would want to know what the room will be like, if there is equipment for projection, how large the audience will be, and the seating arrangements. If possible, you will want to practice your presentation in a room that is similar to the actual space where you will deliver it.

The best advice for contextual preparation is to arrive early. If you have to rush in at the last minute, as so many students do, you will not be mindful, focused, or calm for the speech. Even more, if you are early, you can make sure equipment is working and can converse with the audience as they enter. Professional speakers often do this to calm themselves, build credibility, and gain knowledge to adapt their presentations to the audience. Even if you don’t want to “schmooze” beforehand, being on time will help you create a good first impression and enhance your credibility before the actual speech.


Speech preparation

Procrastination, like lack of sleep, seems to just be part of student life. Sometimes students feel that they just don’t get the best ideas until the last minute. Writing that essay for literature class at 3:00 a.m. just may work for you. However, when it comes to public speaking, there are some definite reasons you would not want to do that. First, of course, if you are finishing up your outline at 3:00 a.m. and have a 9:00 a.m. speech, you are going to be tired and unable to focus. Second, your instructor may require you to turn in your outline ahead of the speech date. However, the main reason is that public speaking requires active, oral, repeated practice before the actual delivery.

You do not want the first time that you say the words to be when you are in front of your audience. Practicing is the only way that you will feel confident, fluent, and in control of the words you speak. Practicing (and timing yourself) repeatedly is also the only way that you will be assured that your speech meets the assignment’s time limits and speaking within the expected time limits is a fundamental rule of public speaking. You may think your speech is five minutes long, but it may end up being ten minutes the first time you practice it—or only two minutes!

Your practicing should be out loud, standing up, with shoes on, with someone to listen, if possible, and with your visual aids. If you can record yourself and watch it, that is even better. If you do record yourself, make sure you record yourself from the feet up—or at least the hips up—so you can see your body language. The need for oral practice will be emphasized over and over in this book and by your instructor. As you progress as a speaker, you will always need to practice, but perhaps not to the extent you do as a novice speaker.

Pro tip: you never look as nervous as you feel.

The audience cannot see that your hands are clammy or that your mouth is dry. They simply see you as you see anybody else on campus.

You may feel that your anxiety is at level seventeen on a scale of one to ten, but the audience does not perceive it the same way. That’s not to say they won’t see any signs of anxiety or that you don’t want to learn to control it, but what you are feeling inside is not as visible as you might think.

Also, you will probably find that your anxiety decreases throughout the class (Finn, Sawyer, & Schrodt, 2009). In her Ted Talk video, Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy discusses nonverbal communication and suggests that instead of “faking it until you make it,” that you can, and should, “fake it until you become it.” She shares research that shows how our behaviour affects our mindsets, not just the other way around. Therefore, the act of giving the speech and “getting through it” will help you gain confidence. Interestingly, Dr. Cuddy directs listeners to strike a “power pose” of strong posture, feet apart, and hands on hips or stretched over head to enhance confidence.

Final Note: If you are an audience member, you can help the speaker with their anxiety. Be an engaged listener from beginning to end. You can imagine that a speaker is going to be more nervous if the audience looks bored. A speaker with less anxiety is going to do a better job and be more interesting. Of course, do not walk into class during your classmates’ speeches or get up and leave. In addition to being rude, it pulls their minds away from their message and distracts the audience.

1.3 – The Value of Public Speaking in Your Life

Public speaking is one of the major communication skills desired by employers, even in fields where entry-level workers may not do much formal public speaking. Nurses give training presentations to parents of newborn babies; accountants advocate for new software in their organizations; managers lead team meetings. These are all examples of public speaking and employers value team members who can clearly, concisely, and persuasively communicate in real time.

If you are taking this class at the beginning of your academic career, you will benefit in your other future classes from the research, organizational, and presentational skills learned here. Different kinds of presentations will be common in future courses.

Another reason for taking a public speaking course is the harder-to-measure but valuable personal benefits. As an article on the USAToday College website states, a public speaking course can help you be a better, more informed and critical listener; it can “encourage you to voice your ideas and take advantage of the influence you have” and it gives you an opportunity to face a major fear you might have in a controlled environment (Massengale, 2014). Finally, the course can attune you to the power of public speaking to change the world. Presentations that lead to changes in laws, policies, leadership, and culture happen every day, all over the world.

1.4 – Getting Started in Public Speaking

To finish this first chapter, let’s close with some foundational principles about public speaking, which apply no matter the context, audience, topic, or purpose.

Timing is everything

We often hear this about acting or humour. In this case, it has to do with keeping within the time limits. As mentioned before, you can only know that you are within time limits by practicing and timing yourself; being within time limits also shows preparation and forethought. More importantly, being early for the presentation and within time limits shows respect for your audience.

Public speaking requires muscle memory

If you have ever learned a new sport, especially in your teen or adult years, you know that you must consciously put your body through some training to get it used to the physical activity of the sport. An example is golf. A golf swing, unlike swinging a baseball bat, is not a natural movement and requires a great deal of practice, over and over, to get it right.

Public speaking is a physical activity, as well. You are standing and sometimes moving around; your voice, eye contact, face, and hands are all involved. You will expend physical energy and, after the speech, you may be tired. Even more, your audience’s understanding and acceptance of your message may depend somewhat on how energetic, controlled, and fluid your physical delivery is. Consequently, learning public speaking means you must train your body to be comfortable in front of an audience and to move in predictable and effective ways.

Public speaking involves a content and relationship dimension

You may have heard the old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” According to Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967), all human communication has two elements going on at the same time: content and relationship. There are statements about ideas, facts, and information, and there are messages communicated about the relationship between the communication partners, past and present. These relationship messages have to do with trust, respect, and credibility, and are conveyed through evidence, appeals, wording (and what the speaker does not say), as well as nonverbal communication.

That said, public speaking is not a good way to provide a lot of facts and data to your audience. In fact, there are limits to how much information you can pile on your audience before listening is too difficult for them. However, public speaking is a good way to make the information meaningful for your audience. Public speaking is more about emotional impact than literal impact.

Know your strengths and weaknesses

Reliable personality inventories, such as the Myers Briggs or the Gallup StrengthsQuest tests, can be helpful in knowing your strengths and weaknesses. One such area is whether you are an extravert or introvert. Introverts, estimated by one source as up to 50% of the population (Buettner, 2012), get their psychological energy from being alone, while extroverts tend to get it from being around others. This is a very basic distinction and there is more to the two categories, but you can see how an extrovert may have an advantage with public speaking. However, the extrovert may be tempted not to prepare and practice as much because they have so much fun in front of an audience, while the introvert may overprepare, but still feel uncomfortable. Your public speaking abilities will benefit from increased self-awareness about such characteristics and your strengths.

Remember the Power of Story

Stories and storytelling, in the form of anecdotes and narrative illustrations, are your most powerful tools as a public speaker. For better or worse, audiences are likely to remember anecdotes and narratives long after a speech’s statistics are forgotten. This does not mean that other types of proof are unimportant or that you just want to tell stories in your speech, but human beings love stories and often will walk away from a speech moved by or remembering a powerful story or example more than anything.

The First Four Rules of Communication

If students take only four sentences away from this entire book and all their learning of public speaking, let it be these four rules:

  • Rule number one: know your audience and put them first.
  • Rule number two: all communication is persuasive.
  • Rule number three: context determines delivery.
  • Rule number four: all audiences begin their interpretation with resistance.

A student who internalizes those mantras in their communication, especially public speaking, will do far better than those who do not. This book will explore the topics of audience, persuasion, and context; any time the topics are discussed, students should reflect on these four key points: know your audience, persuade, be sensitive to the situation, and know you’re going to encounter resistance.


This chapter has been designed to be informative but also serve as a bit of a pep talk. Many students face this course with trepidation. However, as studies have shown over the years, a certain amount of tension when preparing to speak in public can be good for motivation.

John Dewey (1916), the 20th century education scholar, is noted for saying, “Education does not come just from experience, but from reflecting on the experience.” As you finish this chapter and look toward your first presentation in class, be sure to give yourself time after the experience to reflect. Doing so will get you on the road to becoming more confident in this endeavour of public speaking.


This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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Public Speaking for Today's Audiences Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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