The Evolution Of Public Speaking

Changes in public speaking create new challenges for speakers
Changes in public speaking create new challenges for speakers
Image Credit: Brain POP

Living in the wondrous 21st Century has given speakers access to tools that never used to be available to anyone who was giving a speech. It can be hard for us to realize that back in the day, the person who had the loudest voice was often considered to be the best speaker. Over time new technologies have come along and changed how speeches are given. When these new technologies have arrived, they have not all been greeted with open arms. As speakers we need to understand what changes have affected how we give speeches so that we can prepare for the changes that are yet to come.

How It All Started

So how is a modern speech given today using all of the available tools? Instead of long, loud speeches, we give short, intimate TED talks. We pick our makeup, hairstyle, wardrobe and unobtrusive microphone with high-definition cameras in mind that will be recording our every move. Our talks are live-streamed on the Internet, archived on YouTube and live-tweeted by our audience. With slides projected behind us, and an on-stage monitor in front of us displaying the words of our speech, there’s really no need for a lectern, text, memorization or even staying in one spot. Our listeners don’t have to travel for hours to see us in person – they are just as free to roam, or not attend at all. Technology lets a speaker reach millions, even if no one else in the audience is on site.

Let’s face it: we’ve gone from long-winded, flowery oratory to slickly produced speeches that can be both tweeted or livestreamed. Speakers today are more polished and poised than ever, thanks to technological wonders. Back in the day, microphones changed everything. Rather than spraying the crowd with emotion (or using a simple megaphone for amplification), the act of performance became much more intimate. As microphones evolved, far more vocal subtlety could be conveyed by a speaker. A different sort of voice found its place on stage. At the same time magnetic recording tape was being invented. Suddenly audio recorded media was flexible and could be cut and pasted, rearranged, and edited. All of this was followed by the arrival of television. With its ability to let distant audiences see as well as hear the speaker, TV had a dramatic impact on public speech.

A talent for digesting a speech down into a memorable phrase is a characteristic of politicians. In the age of television, where political speakers are more likely to be heard in news clips than in any other environment, the value of this talent is magnified. Eventually, the advances reflected on television would fit onto smaller screens with the explosion of online video. Small screens have helped to shift rhetorical styles from a more masculine tone to the conversational, quieter “it’s just you and me” approach used by speakers today. The reason for this is simple: cameras can zoom in to create an intimate experience between the viewer and the speaker. Once this happened, tactics for playing to the big crowd didn’t work as well. We need to understand that small details in a speaker’s verbal and non-verbal behavior may appear very noticeable and exaggerated when seen close-up on the small screen.

Have Things Become Better?

Speaker can view technology as both a problem and an opportunity. In the course of protesting technology’s negative impact on the art of public speaking, a few myths have been created. For example, some critics suggest that speechwriters have become focused solely on crafting “tweetable” lines in major speeches. These are pithy sentences that allow someone to “retweet” the writer’s post on Twitter to fit within the 140-character limit, with room to spare.

However, Yahoo News has created an interactive tool that lets you measure the “tweetability” of several major speeches of U.S. President Barack Obama. The result is that his speeches get a mixed ranking; some are ranked very tweetable, others less so. But when this modern tool is used on the major speeches of the past, they, too, turn out to be highly tweetable. Malcom X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech has a 78 percent tweetability rating and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech has a 81 percent rating. Could it be that that an excellent speech also is a tweetable speech, without any extra help from the writers?

A key point that all speakers need to be aware of is that one of technology’s newest opportunities for speakers – the chance to look and sound effortless or more polished – also may be a problem if technology smooths out all of our rough edges at the expense of a real connection. We need to understand that with our speeches we want our audience to understand that it’s the ideas that supersede whatever flaws there are. That kind of perfection can spell trouble for the average speaker like us. The quantity of a polished speech that audiences now experience – or are subjected to, due to technology – means that expectations for speakers are higher than ever before. Far from adding to the speaker’s credibility the trend toward overly polished speakers results in soaring levels of public skepticism. What this means for us as speakers is that we need to develop a new authenticity which these days is the new must-have that is seldom given to the audience.

What All Of This Means For You

Truly we are living in a magical time. As speakers we have a whole host of tool and technologies that we can use each time that we give a speech in order to sound better and make a connection with our audience. This has all been made possible by the invention of microphones, recording tape, and television. The arrival of smaller and smaller screens has resulted in speakers having to change their speaking styles to become more and more intimate with their audience. Technology has changed the nature of the speeches that we give. The “tweetability” of our speeches has now become important. However, it turns out that this has been an issue for a long time. Speakers do need to be careful because we can become too polished and this will impact our ability to connect with our audience.

In the end, having more tools that we can use to give better speeches has to be a good thing. However, speakers need to take a careful look at each of the new speaking technologies that we are handed. We need to understand how they can be used to provide our audiences with a better experience during our speeches. However, we also have to understand if they bring any downsides to a speech. Careful use of each tool can help a speaker become better each time that they give a speech.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: How can a speaker make sure that they remain “real” to their audience?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Every speaker wants the same thing: our audience to be hanging on our next word. We want them to be listening to what we are telling them deeply and once we’ve told them something, we want them to remember what we said. We’ve got a number of tricks in our bag to make this happen, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to do. Perhaps we’ve been overlooking a clever way to get the words that flow over our lips to glide into the ears of our audience? Poetry just might be what we have been looking for.