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Misunderstandings about Public Speaking

Because the process of communication is so complex, it is often misunderstood. It would simplify matters if a person could convey thoughts telepathically to another person. If thoughts did not have to be formulated in a speaker’s brain, expressed through that speaker’s words, transmitted through the air, perceived through the listener’s ears, understood in the listener’s mind, and responded to verbally by the listener, a message would always be understood. But that is not possible. Instead, God created humans to have thoughts and feelings which, to be understood by others, must be expressed in words. The complexity of communication requires study and practice throughout the lifespan.

Many counseling books unveil the critical need for communication within marriage. For years, during pre-martial counseling, my (Monica) father would place three rocks before the couple, signifying the three foundations of a marriage. One of those rocks stood for the critical need to communicate (connection); the others for communion (intimacy) and cooperation (marital roles). Married couples certainly benefit from the mastery of communication.

While there are numerous misunderstandings about communication, Duane Litfin presents three common ones in his book, Public Speaking: A Handbook for Christians.[1] These misunderstandings can confuse both the speaker and the listener.

Misunderstanding 1: Each act of communication is separate and discrete and can be studied as such. The truth is that communication is a complicated, interactive process.

Misunderstanding 2: Communication is linear in the sense that a message travels one way from a source to a receiver. The truth is that human communication is circular. It begins with a spoken word and continues with further interactions.

Misunderstanding 3: The speaker transfers thought to the listeners. The truth is the listener filters information through personal perspective in order to understand the message spoken.

These misunderstandings reflect the complexity of the process of communication. Though complex, communication is an essential interaction among humans to convey messages, build relationships, and serve others. Understanding these myths about communication will improve overall communication and strengthen relationships.

Seven Pinker, and Paul Bloom declared, “Speaking is innate, writing is an invention.”[2] Oral communication has several distinctive components which contrast it from written communication.[3]  These differences must be considered when speaking verbally. First, oral communication tends to be more direct than written expression. Nonverbal cues can clarify meaning while more description is necessary in writing. Second, oral communication tends to be more repetitive or redundant than written discourse. Readers can refer back to information that is written, while listeners need repetition for better understanding. Third, oral communication tends to be more fragmentary. Written language includes complete thoughts and sentences. Fourth, oral communication tends to be more personal. Readers typically include a variety of people not only those close enough to listen personally. One needs to be aware of these distinctives when preparing to speak. Information needs to be delivered to be heard, not read.

One of my (Monica) favorite Bible verses is Psalm 45:1,  “My heart is moved by a noble theme as I recite my verses to the king; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer.” I love to write and find I am able to express on paper what is often difficult to express aloud. When I turned twelve years old, I started keeping a prayer journal. I would write out my prayers. Journaling became a daily discipline for me and helped me to articulate on paper what I was thinking about or struggling with each day. I found in my writing that I was much more detailed when I wrote out my prayers on paper than when I prayed out loud. However, when I have been asked to pray at a women’s event or small group setting, I never hand out copies of a prayer to be read by everyone. I speak them out loud to the Lord on behalf of the women in the group. As women hear what is spoken out loud, there is a connection. Words spoken out loud are different than words written out on paper.

According to Litfin, there are several distinct advantages of public speaking.  First, important messages must often be communicated to a large number of people. It is much more practical and beneficial for a major thought to be shared one time to a larger group than many times one-to-one. Second, a public speech is a message which can be organized and prepared by the speaker. Thoughtful preparation increases the clarity and improves the effectiveness of the communication. Third, a public speech allows the ideas to be heard by the listeners who can postpone a response until the ideas are fully understood.[4] While spontaneous, interpersonal conversation will always be a part of daily life and church ministry, skilled public speaking can enhance the message delivery among groups and even among individuals. What misconceptions do you encounter about public speaking?

            [1] Duane Litfin, Public Speaking: A Handbook for Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 19-21.

            [2] S. Pinker, and P.Bloom.”Natural language and natural selection,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13, 4 (1990), 707–784.

            [3] Litfin, Public Speaking, 275-77.

            [4] Litfin, Public Speaking, 27.

Stand Up Straight & Don’t Pace

Platform movement and posture are essential elements of nonverbal communication. Like gestures, they should look and feel natural to reinforce the message and not distract. The stance and movement of the body involve the total person, mentally and physically. Thoughts and feelings can be expressed in movements and gestures. These two rules should be remembered when on the platform: move when there is reason to move and stand still when there is no reason to move.

One of my (Rhonda) doctoral professors roamed back and forth in front of the classroom without making any eye contact with the students during his lectures. He paced aimlessly in front of the class as he taught. As a project in a behavioral modification course, several students attempted to alter his distracting behavior. Students on the right side of the class paid careful attention to the professor as he paced—looking interested, nodding heads, taking notes, and asking questions. Students on the left side of the classroom ignored the professor as he taught—disinterested yawns, hands on desks, no notes, and no questions. Within a few minutes, the professor only paced back and forth on the right side of the room. While his pacing behavior was modified, his poor eye contact remained unchanged. I learned the impact of the speaker’s body movement and positions by observing a negative model as a student.

Posture is noticed immediately, and opinions are made about a speaker based on stance and carriage. Posture is the position of a person’s body when standing or sitting. Many different organs, muscles, and nerves in the body are used to stand. While physical conditions may inhibit good posture, most people can control posture with conscious actions. A public speaker needs good posture to support vocal projection, to display confidence, and to enhance movement.

In No Sweat Public Speaking, Fred Miller suggests four ways that posture helps communicate a message. (1) Good, straight posture indicates leadership and confidence. (2) Leaning forward toward the audience shows concern and care. (3) Slouching the body conveys disinterest and boredom. (4) Hunched shoulders suggest low self-esteem and lack of confidence. Posture is more important than many speakers realize. Evaluate posture in a mirror or on a videotape. Remember to stand up, then speak up!

There are some cardinal rules about posture and movement that a good speaker should follow. Try not to break the following posture principles:

  1. Do not fidget with your hands or fingers.
  2. Do not jingle change or keys in your pockets.
  3. Do not cross your hands in front of your body (“fig–leaf stance”) or behind your body.
  4. Do not rock on your heels or toes.
  5. Do not sway back and forth.
  6. Do not lean on the podium.
  7. Do not cross your arms across chest.
  8. Do not look down for too long.
  9. Do not bob or shake your head too much.
  10. Do not be stiff or tense.

Zig Ziglar was a dynamic public speaker and powerful Christian communicator. Though small in physical stature, he had a “bigger than life” presence on the stage. He projected energy and enthusiasm as he moved confidently around the stage. His speech content was filled with knowledge and wisdom, and his delivery style was passionate, purposeful, and powerful. His sales experience and personal faith provided the foundational principles for his speaking and writing. A master of verbal and nonverbal communication, Ziglar said it this way: “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” Stand up and speak out like Zig Ziglar did for many years.

Correct posture is an important part of nonverbal communication in public speaking. Practice these principles and avoid these pitfalls.

  1. Walk deliberately to the stage; avoid rushing onto the platform.
  2. Stand upright keeping the body core tight; avoid tension or tightness.
  3. Place feet firmly on the ground and slightly apart (about shoulder width); avoid stiff legs and locked knees.
  4. Face the audience directly; avoid turning the body away.
  5. Position body behind podium with hands to the side or resting on lectern; avoid gripping the podium.
  6. Hold head and chin up; avoid looking down.
  7. Square shoulders with the audience; avoiding drooping shoulders.
  8. Keep chest up and stomach in; avoid tightening abdominal muscles.
  9. Relax the body; avoid tension and stiffness.
  10. Breathe deeply to relax; avoid short, shallow breaths.
  11. Pause to look at the audience; avoid rushing into the speech.
  12. Watch the posture of others speakers; avoid awkward imitation of others.
    Improved posture adds strength and authority to a spoken message.

Dale Carnegie, known as the father of modern public speaking, said: “A person under the influence of his feelings projects the real self, acting naturally and spontaneously. A speaker who is interested will usually be interesting.”

When your name is called and you walk to the stage…
rise up slowly,
stand up erectly,
walk out boldly,
pause—breathe—look—then
speak out confidently.

Good posture makes a good impression on the audience and gives good support to the speaker. Outstanding public speakers develop a platform posture to reflect their attitudes and gain the audience’s attention. Body posture can reduce nervous energy and relieve physical tension. As you speak, make your body talk.

Step Back and Observe

“Vertical and horizontal listening are necessary for Christian speakers.”[1]

While there is no one perfect speaker in the world, there are many excellent speakers. Much can be learned by listening to and observing a wide range of speakers in a variety of contexts. Insights can be gained from the strengths and weaknesses of public speakers, and ideas can be prayerfully incorporated into one’s own speaking style.

Assessment of the public speaking of others should consider several personal characteristics or traits in addition to skills and abilities. Observe the speaker’s character and integrity; sensitivity and awareness; knowledge and information; and desire and passion. These traits are worthy qualities to emulate.

Awareness and informal observations should become a natural mindset of a speaker. Without pen and paper or objective criteria, make mental notes as others speak. Learn to communicate more effectively through observation and examination as well as practice.

Some general guidelines will provide structure for informal observations. Begin noticing the speaker even before the speech starts. Continue observation during the speech and until the speaker is no longer present. Consider observing these aspects of communication, incorporating them into conscious thought.

Before the speech.Observe the setting and platform before the message begins. Is the platform conducive to comfortable positioning and movement by the speaker? Is the lighting adequate for good visibility? Are the podium and props set up properly? Is the screen visible for slides if used, and will the speaker be able to reference them easily? Will the speaker be positioned physically to connect with audience? While some features of setting and stage are beyond a guest speaker’s control, some adjustments and adaptations can be made to improve the speech.

Notice the speaker’s behavior and mannerisms even before she speaks. How does she interact with people before the session begins? How does she participate in the program as a part of the audience? How does she approach the stage and position herself for speaking? How appropriate is her appearance, clothing, and makeup?

During the speech.While the speaker shares the message, try to focus on the speech content and allow the Lord to communicate His thoughts personally. Also, pay attention to the public speaking skills employed during the delivery. It may be helpful to organize observations within the introduction, body, and conclusion parts of the speech. The speaker and listener should be consciously aware of each distinct part.

Listen carefully to the speaker’s opening comments in the introduction. Did she immediately capture the attention of the audience? Did she begin with a challenging question or interesting illustration? Did she relate to the other people or elements of the program? Did she quickly gain rapport with the audience? Did she stimulate interest in the topic? Did she project energy and enthusiasm? Did she use specific words phrases or movements to bridge from the introduction to the body?

As the body of the speech was delivered, did the speaker transition smoothly from the introduction? Did the speaker present clear relevant points? Did she include appropriate supportive material to strengthen her premises? Did she use nonverbal communication naturally? Did she utilize the sound system and media effectively? Did she adhere to the schedule and allot time equally to all points? Did she move smoothly into the concluding remarks?

Was the conclusion truly the conclusion? Did the speaker pause, alter tone, adjust pace, or move to denote the conclusion? Did she summarize main points or introduce new material? Did she call for response or action? Did she close in a vivid memorable way? Did she verbalize “in conclusion” or “in closing?” Did she have a false conclusion? Did she stop before the audience finished listening?

After the speech. Recall the positives and negatives of the speech as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the speaker. Was the speaker effective? Was she well-prepared and thorough? Was the message relevant to your life? Was the audience responsive? Were the major points memorable? Were personal applications realistic? What were two or three strengths of the speaker? What are one or two weaknesses needing work? What one positive comment would you like to share with the speaker?

Whether a wonderfully delivered or poorly constructed message, much can be learned through stepping back and observing!

            [1] Quentin Schultze, An Essential Guide to Public Speaking. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006),  45-49.

God SPOKE the Earth into Being

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Human communication is a creation of God, an innate ability to convey thoughts to others. The process of human communication is very complex as people attempt to create meaning by using symbolic behavior in a specific situation to achieve understanding.

Communication is essential to life and relationships. It has been said that most of us spend up to 70% of our waking hours engaged in some form of communication. A person’s waking hours are filled with words!

Communication skills have the power to help people achieve their goals and accomplish their dreams. In his book, Secrets of Great Communicators, Jeff Myers suggests there are six ways communication skills can help dreams come true. He believes people with excellent communication skills will have a tremendous advantage over those without them. It has been said that seven out of ten jobs require good speech skills!

Consider these factors which support the impact of good communication on life and work:

1. You will find a stronger sense of purpose.

2. You will become aware of the world around you.

3. You will become a better learner.

4. You will become a better thinker.

5. You will develop greater poise in social situations.

6. You will relate better to others.

Queen Esther is an excellent biblical example of an effective communicator. She had many serious concerns to express, grace information which necessitated an audience with the king. She discreetly planned the appropriate time to pour out her deep burden and reveal the planned plot to kill her beloved Mordecai (Esther 4:15-5:8). Her conversation with the king literally saved her people!

In the beginning, God spoke the world into being. His divine communication accomplished His creation. For Christians, communication is more than an exchange of ideas. It is sharing faith with others through God-given speaking abilities. God empowers His children to communicate with Him through prayer and with each other in many different ways. So you see – learning how to SPEAK truly is a gift.