What is Public Speaking?

Hey there! So, if you find yourself on this page, you might be wondering…what is public speaking, exactly? Or maybe you know just a little about public speaking and want to learn more. Or, perhaps, you’re somewhere in between…awesome! No matter your level of knowledge on public speaking, scroll down and gain some more knowledge, fellow communicator!

It’s hard to find someone who is not familiar, at least on the surface level, with the term public speaking. But what is its true definition? Is there one right way to define it, or even one right way to practice it? The information provided here can hopefully answer those questions, plus more that may arise. 

Communication Comes First

Before we define public speaking, it is important to define communication first. Above all else, every single living being is a communicator by nature. We will focus on human communication here, though. Communication is not designed to be a one-way street. Essentially, it is “the process through which we express, interpret, and coordinate messages with others” (Verderber, et. al., Comm4, 2016, p. 3).

The following textbook exert from Engleberg and Wynn (THINK Communication, 2013) describes well the overall picture of communication and our roles as communicators:

“The instant you were born, you began communicating. You squirmed, cried, and even screamed when you were hungry or hurt. You smiled and gurgled when you were happy and content. And as you fussed and cooed, you also began learning how to speak and listen. From a very early age, you faced hundreds of communication challenges—and still do. Communication occupies more of your waking time than anything else you do. 

You communicate every day: when you greet your friends, participate in a class discussion, interact with coworkers, or shake hands with a new acquaintance. You also live in a competitive world where effective speaking allows you and your message to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Your ability to communicate, regardless of whether you’re interacting with one person, a small group, or a large audience, determines how well you inform, persuade, delight, inspire, and comfort other people. 

Most of the time, you communicate well, but what about when you’re in the middle of a heated argument, when you can’t think of what to say to a troubled friend, or when an important presentation falls short? In such situations, you need more than common sense. Like most complex processes, effective communication requires knowledge, skills, and motivation.”

Engleberg, Isa N., and Dianna Wynn. “Human Communication.” Introduction. In Think Communication, 2nd ed., 3. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2013.

Public Speaking & Conversation

Now that you know more about communication as a whole, let’s dive into two related areas of communication: public speaking and communication.

Did you know there are several similarities between public speaking and conversation? Lucas lists four similarities between these two concepts in The Art of Public Speaking (2015, 12th ed.). During both public speaking presentations and conversations, you will be:

  1. Organizing your thoughts logically;
  2. Tailoring your message to your audience;
  3. Telling a story for maximum impact; and 
  4. Adapting to listener feedback.

Consequently, even with these similarities, there are still three key differences that separate public speaking from conversation that Lucas also makes a point to discuss after laying out the similarities:

  1. Public speaking is more highly structured than conversation;
  2. Public speaking requires more formal language than conversation; and 
  3. Public speaking requires a different method of delivery than conversation. 

Of course, there is quite a bit more to public speaking than what has been outlined here—otherwise, why would there be entire educational courses on the subject?!—but hopefully this outline has given you the general idea behind public speaking. 

Continue learning! 

Be sure to check out all the other content on this site to learn about other aspects of public speaking! Each menu header is a different topic area, with plenty of content to gain some more knowledge! 

If you’re interested in reading some books on the subject of public speaking, be sure to check out the Book Recommendations section under the Extra Tips, Tricks, and Resources page on this site!