The Rhetorical Situation:
How Public Speaking is Different than Conversation
Thus far we’ve discussed some important ingredients of the universal communication situation where there is a source and receiver connected and constantly adjusting to the other via feedback. While these ingredients apply to communication situations in general, it’s important to address the unique elements that compose the public speaking situation by comparing and contrasting four specific differences within everyday conversation and public speaking.
Difference #1: Fluid vs. Formal Roles
Interpersonal conversation depends on the principle of reciprocity. When you communicate in informal contexts, both parties are expected to participate, each playing the role of source and receiver, encoding and decoding simultaneously. This creates a domino effect or cycle among participants. While we’ve all been stuck in conversations where one person dominates the conversation and does all the talking, most of us expect to speak and listen when conversing. Moreover, when you converse with friends, each party is considered an equal. Each of you expects to add something to the conversation and also acknowledges that the other person will have a comment to say in response. Thus, informal conversation is defined by the fluid roles we play as both speakers and receivers, as creators, active participants and audience members.
In public speaking, this rule of reciprocity is broken because of a very clear power difference. In traditional public speaking situations, speakers are expected to speak uninterrupted on a topic behind a podium while audiences are expected to listen, in relative silence, until the speaker is finished. As an audience member, you may want to interrupt, to disagree, or you may even know that what the speaker is saying is untrue. As an audience member, however, you accept the power distinctions between you and the speaker and are expected to allow the speaker to complete his or her presentation uninterrupted. As a professor of communication, I have witnessed first-hand that ‘one’ student who makes a random comment during another student’s presentation in front of the class. There is little doubt that it is responded to with awkward glances and negative non-verbals from others. Even the classroom environment has accepted social norms that are negotiated by acceptable and unacceptable symbols of communication.
In interpersonal conversations, feedback is interactive because it changes what is said or not said between two people. For example, when friends are laughing at your jokes, you tell more jokes. When friends are showing nonverbal signs of disinterest in your story, you will shorten the story or change topics all together. However, in traditional speaking situations, ongoing feedback is constrained by the expectation that verbal feedback will occur only after applause. The important point of distinction between conversation and public speaking is that feedback in conversation is expected to change the content and quality of the interaction whereas the feedback provided in public speaking settings is designed as a response to the completed speech or presentation.
Difference #2: Informal vs. Formal Rules
In everyday communication, conversation is oftentimes predicated on shared meaning. Interpersonal conversation encourages the kind of insider knowledge that only two life-long friends can share or two employees who have worked at the same company for years can fully understand. Simply put, shared knowledge means the use of specialized language, inside jokes, abbreviations, slang, colloquialisms, common expressions, and free-flowing movement from one topic to another. These informal aspects of interpersonal conversation are allowable (and understandable) because of the familiarity that each participant shares (or can share) with the other in the form of a shared history.
In public speaking settings, audiences are composed of different individuals from a variety of backgrounds. As expected, the speaker doesn’t or can’t know the audience members intimately. Because of that fact, public speaking is defined not by the familiarity of audience to speaker as much as it is by a formalized and rigid set of rules. Generally, there are three genres of rhetoric, or types of speaking situations, each with its own set of rules, replete with what subjects are appropriate to speak about and expectations about how to speak. These genres of rhetoric include: (1) deliberative speaking situations, (2) judicial situations, and (3) ceremonial situations.
In deliberative speaking situations, politicians in the House of Representatives or Senate, for example, argue over what the best means are to achieve a desired future – i.e. should this person be nominated to the Supreme Court, what is the best health care system for the U.S., and how best might our military fight and win the war against terrorism? In judicial speaking situations, like the OJ Simpson Trial, the Scott Peterson Trial, or even the Michael Jackson trial, prosecutors and defense argue over guilt or innocence in the context of a courtroom. Here, both sides attempt to determine justice by arguing over what occurred in the past. Finally, in ceremonial or epideictic rhetorical situations, speakers celebrate virtue or condemn vice. In these recurring situations, like wedding ceremonies, eulogy orations, keynote presentations or even award celebrations, etc., speakers attempt to draw attention to values they find worthy of emulation or positive critique vices that they believe are worthy of condemnation.
In each specific speaking situation, there are specific rules for what can and cannot be said, what should or should not be said, and what counts as evidence and effective reasoning. Whereas in interpersonal conversation, trust is determined by the opportunity to know or get to know one another, in the context of public speeches, evidence and reasoning replaces trust as the measure by which audiences believe or don’t believe what a speaker says.
Difference #3: Spontaneous vs. Strategic Intention
When you communicate with a friend, you don’t always have a clear purpose or agenda. Let’s be honest, in interpersonal situations, we rarely have an agenda or purpose. Most of the time, communicating with a friend can be justified simply because it is enjoyable. We doubt you ask yourself if you were “successful” or “effective” after having a conversation with a friend. Successful at what? Effective based on what criteria? These questions sound silly when considered in light of interpersonal and informal contexts, but they are essential questions all speakers must address when speaking in public.
As a public speaker, you always have a purpose. Audiences, or receivers, expect you to say something about some topic, in a logical manner, for some purpose. Speakers speak to respond to an implicit “question” in the minds of audiences (Bitzer, 1968). Speakers speak to provide information as well as help audiences to make sense of what just happened, to calm audience fears, and to give meaning to seemingly senseless acts. For example, after the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, OK, where 168 people, including 18 children died, words are what audiences expected to hear to help answer the inevitable questions that emerged from the carnage. Why? Who would do such a thing? How did this happen in the heartland of America? And what can we do to prevent such tragedies from happening again?
Audience questions, whether implicit or explicitly stated, are the collateral damage that always seems to follow events that defy expectations. On the evening of September 11, 2001, after the world witnessed live images of the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City, the crash of an airliner into the Pentagon and a downed airplane in the fields of Pennsylvania, President George Bush spoke to Americans to help them make sense of what had happened, reassure Americans and the world that essential government operations were in place to handle the crisis, and to remind Americans that we would endure this tragedy just as we had others in the past. In times of confusion, destruction, deliberation, and celebration, audiences look to speakers to help them make sense of the world by addressing the why and what and how of experiences that suddenly seem less than clear.CNN – Ex-President George W. Bush's Post 9/11 Speech
Speakers and speeches don’t always follow events, however. Sometimes, speakers and speeches attempt to preempt issues, events, or impending threats that might be overlooked, forgotten or underappreciated without the speaker’s use of words and attention to the topic (Vatz, 1973). For example, less than a year after the Allied Victory in World War II, Winston Churchill delivered a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, introducing the term “iron curtain” into the vernacular to highlight the growing schism between the democracies of Europe and the growing threat of Soviet Communism. More recently, Senator Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth attempted to draw attention to the harmful effects of global warming and warn audiences of the imminent dangers of viewing ecological calamity as a mere political issue rather than as the overriding moral issue of the twenty first century.Churchill Sinews of Peace (Iron Curtain)
Speakers attempt to preempt or answer the questions audiences have in their minds. Speakers speak for a purpose, and oftentimes, the speaker who is deemed the most credible and the most persuasive is the speaker who most effectively addresses audience fears, doubts, worries, and questions.
Difference #4: One to Many
In everyday conversation, communication is not similar to a ping-pong game, where the participants take set turns. Rather, communication is more like a dance, where interaction is featured and the movement between people is more important than the individuals themselves. Interruptions, laughter, and feedback keep the dance of conversation moving as the “we” becomes more important than the “I”. On the other hand, in public speaking, the spotlight rarely shines on the audience because the center of attention is the speaker. For many of us, standing alone behind a podium and staring out into a sea of faces is the subject of many nightmares because when we speak in public, we can’t hide behind the “We”, as it is the “I” that is on stage, and it is the “I” to which all eyes are looking at. This reality is why public speaking is unlike any other class you will take or any other academic and performance based experience. Before we get into the details in the how to part of this book, it is important to explore why taking a public speaking class will be unlike any other class you’ve taken in college, as well as why taking a public speaking class will positively impact the rest of your life.
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