The Good Sophist Approach to Teaching Public Speaking

How you can become a great speaker and a great communicator

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The Path to public speaking excellence

The ability to stand in front of a group of people and give an eloquent speech is an impressive skill. The reality, however, is that it is not an easy skill to acquire. Many people are genuinely afraid of public speaking, and most people are mediocre to bad speakers. The good news is that anyone can give a great speech. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts or hacks to make you a great speaker.

Public Speaking and Great Speakers

A picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. engaged in public speaking.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Anyone can give a serviceable speech for a special occasion or a class project, but not everyone is a great speaker. A great speaker can hold the attention of an audience. A great speaker can ace a job interview, close the deal, or win the election. A great speaker forms robust and genuine relationships. A great speaker is an excellent communicator in every aspect of his or her life. Public speaking skills are the same skills we use every day to communicate to those around us.

The purpose of Good Sophist is to help people improve their communication competency through public speaking skills. I sincerely believe that helping people communicate improves their lives and creates a healthy democratic society. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and researching communication and how we teach communication. If you want to be a great speaker and a great communicator, then this is how I believe that is best accomplished.

1. Emphasize Outcome over Process

Any activity has two components: process and outcome. The process includes skills and techniques. The outcome is the desired results of executing the process. When you begin most activities, you start by learning the process with the hope that it will lead to the outcome you want. Public speaking is no different. When Aristotle sat down to write, On Rhetoric, two-thousand years ago, he did exactly that. He isolated four steps that great speakers follow: invention, arrangement, style and delivery. Although we now have more information to draw upon, modern public speaking textbooks emphasize the process over the outcome.

I’ve been teaching public speaking for much of my professional life, and I’ve found it to be inefficient. First, most public speaking curricula are designed to bring students to competency in the processes of public speaking. It makes sense that you have to be average before you are good and good before you are great. The problem lies with the focus on process. Competency becomes defined by how well you follow the process rather than on how well you achieve the outcomes.

The Problem with Great Speakers

The evidence for this is evident when you start to examine the speeches of really talented orators. Great speakers rarely follow the processes we teach in public speaking classes because great speakers are great because of their technique. They are great because of what they accomplish. You don’t have to teach an audience what a good speech sounds like, they know naturally. If you examine great speakers through this lens, you begin to see some simple similarities that make them great.

I redesigned my curriculum to focus on outcomes and found that my students enjoyed the class more and ended up much better speakers. I do not ignore the processes of putting a great speech together, but I approach them through the lens of four outcomes all great speakers achieve: attention, retention, connection, and reaction.

Attention

The first outcome of great speakers is that they hold the attention of the audience. We often blame a loss of focus on the poor attention span of the public. But if you look at great speeches, the audience (or most of the audience) can maintain relatively high levels of attention throughout the speech.

Retention

Human memory is far from perfect, and it is impossible to remember a speech of any length word-for-word. However, great speakers can get audience members to remember key themes, messages, or lines after the speech.

Connection

One of the reasons great speakers are great is because they create a connection, or a relationship, with the audience. At best, an audience can feel empathy or simpatico with a speaker, at worst an audience should feel as though they understand the speaker.

Reaction

A good reaction can be physical, mental, or emotional, but great speakers get something out of the audience. All speeches are persuasive. Either you are selling something, or you are selling yourself. Great speakers can move audiences. There is a real reaction to what is said.

2. Practice, practice and then practice some more.

If you read every book ever published on Kung-Fu, but never set foot in a dojo, you will most likely never win a fight. Likewise, you can read every textbook and blog post on public speaking and never give a good speech. It is great to learn what it takes to deliver a great speech, but you will never accomplish that without standing up and giving speeches. For a one-time event that means practicing both by yourself and others. For a sustained commitment to becoming a great speaker, you need to give speeches as often as possible.

3. Find your voice

There is a great speaker in you waiting to emerge. Are you someone who needs to spend hours memorizing every line, every inflection, every pause of your speech? Or are you the type of speaker that makes it up as you go along? Are you a gregarious speaker, or do you rely on the power of language? I’ve taught hundreds of people how to speak in public, and each speaker is unique. You don’t have to follow a set procedure to be great, but you do need to figure out what you do great and maximize that.

5 COMMENTS

  1. […] The Good Sophist approach to public speaking emphasizes four outcomes that great speeches achieve. Great slide decks should help you achieve these outcomes. The first outcome is attention. Your slides should draw attention to your speech. Unfortunately, in their natural state, slide decks can increase your chances of losing attention. We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen to you. Next, your slides should help your audience remember what your speech was about. Third, you want to use your slides to create a connection with the audience. A big part of public speaking is creating a relationship with your audience. Finally, you want the audience to react in a positive way to your slides. Properly creating your slide deck is the first step in achieving these outcomes. […]

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