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Adventures in public speaking: A guide for the beginning instructor or public speaker.

According to recent surveys, many people in America rank speaking in public as one of the greatest fears of their lives. (1) In fact, some individuals have ranked the fear of public speaking ahead of their fears of financial difficulty, illness, or even death. In law enforcement, some officers compare dangerous incidents they encounter while on duty with standing in front of a group of strangers and giving a prepared presentation. A greater fear is having to speak in front of superiors and explain a procedure or specific occurrence without the benefit of preparation. This, coupled with the possibility of having to answer questions by an audience, can induce fear in even the most senior employees.

Regardless of their title, one day, someone will ask most officers to formally speak to a group. By properly preparing, they can avoid a potentially embarrassing event, whether giving a status report to the city government or representing their own department at a local civic meeting.

Addressing Public-Speaking Fears

Why does speaking in public terrify so many individuals? A 1990 study asked a group of men and women what they feared most about speaking to groups of people. They responded with a variety of answers, (2) some of which include the fear of--

* making embarrassing mistakes (81 percent);

* damaging their career or reputation (77 percent);

* forgetting material or "freezing" (63 percent);

* being dull or boring (58 percent);

* looking nervous (52 percent);

* being stared at (45 percent);

* being unable to answer questions (37 percent);

* being unprepared (31 percent);

* being ignored (24 percent);

* being laughed at (19 percent); and

* having someone in the audience fall asleep (7 percent).

Experienced public speakers can address nearly all of these issues and help make speaking to groups less intimidating. Although public speakers must accept certain fears, most individuals can overcome such fears through practice and commitment and from identifying their own particular weaknesses. Certain techniques exist that can help individuals address their public speaking concerns and teach them how to relax. Relaxation will help the speaker control any nervous mannerisms (e.g., dry mouth, wrenching hands, crackling voice) that adversely can affect the way they present themselves. Knowing and working within their limitations and increasing their self-confidence constitutes the first step in becoming a successful speaker. The process of communication is an ordinary occurrence but, through inadvertent means, easily can become unclear. Understanding how the basic communication process unfolds will prove invaluable in making a successful presentation.

Identifying Barriers to Communication

The basic process of communication consists of three simple parts. The first component, the sender of the message, can be a speaker or instructor, a television or radio program, or even a movie. The last component, the receiver of the information, consists of the individuals to whom the material is presented. The central and most important part of the process, the message itself, is simply the information that the sender delivers to the receiver. This seemingly simple process easily can get distorted for a variety of reasons. For example, in the telephone or grapevine game, the first person in line whispers a message one time to the next person in line. In turn, that person must relate the message to the next person in line. This is repeated until the last person in the group receives the message and then relates it aloud. In large groups, the last person's interpretation of the message is invariably different from the originator's message. This exercise demonstrates some of the barriers to effective communi cation. Both the instructor, or sender, and the audience, or receiver, can construct such barriers, with attitudes as the most equally erected barrier.

If the sender has a preconceived idea about the audience, it will be reflected in the delivery. For example, if a speaker who usually gives presentations to corporate executives or senior administrators presents a similar lecture to a group of high school students, the speaker may oversimplify the topic. As a result, the audience may perceive this as conceit or egotism on the part of the instructor, which can result in a diminished receptiveness. The audience will recognize such subtleties, whether intentional or not, and may become tainted toward the speaker and, ultimately, the material presented.

Most everyone has heard speakers they disliked. Whether the recipient thought the speaker was too liberal, too conservative, or simply difficult to understand, when a member of an audience has a preconceived attitude toward a speaker, they tend to focus on the negative aspects of the presenter and ignore the message.

Additionally, a speaker may display a limited vocabulary or poor choice of words. A speaker whose presentation contains acronyms and technical language risks losing the attention of anyone unfamiliar with their meanings. Using unfamiliar terms to an audience of trainees does not imply that the speaker knows more than the audience; rather, it can create an undesirable attitude toward the instructor. Individuals often tune out things they do not understand. Generally, audience members hesitate to ask questions or admit that they do not understand the meaning of a word or concept. Some individuals refrain from raising their hands and asking for clarification because they feel that they are interrupting the lecture or that their question may make them look ignorant or uninformed. Therefore, rather than asking the speaker to clarify or define a term, these individuals tend to substitute the word or phrase that they do not understand with one that they do. This can have a profound effect on the substance and true meaning of the message.

The simpler the information the speaker presents, the better an audience will understand it. For example, if an instructor gives a presentation on a highly technical topic to a group of novice trainees, the instructor first must define any technical terms at the beginning of the program. Otherwise, the instructor risks losing the attention of part or all of the audience.

Unpreparedness constitutes another barrier common to presenters. Effective speakers must have a solid working knowledge of the topic and must support the presentation with facts and research. Nothing can substitute for quality preparation. Lack of skill and preparation quickly can destroy a well-conceived program. Presenters should consider the individuals who make up their audience, their background, and their level of likely resistance or acceptance. They should research and become familiar with their topic and learn as much about the audience as possible. In doing so, the material will become stimulating and relevant. At the beginning of the program, speakers should make clear what the audience will gain by accepting this material. (3)

Using Nonverbal Behavior

Individuals in law enforcement extensively use somatic, or body, language in their daily contacts with others. This concept, defined as any conscious or unconscious movement of a part or all of the body that communicates an emotional message, remains an essential principle in courses on interviewing and interrogation. (4) Law enforcement professionals recognize that individuals exhibit certain constant, spontaneous, and involuntary behaviors when interviewed under stressful conditions. (5) Similarly, those same nonverbal cues law enforcement officers search for while conducting interviews can indicate doubt, nervousness, or fear to an audience. Trained interrogators can recognize certain nonverbal behaviors as indicators of both truth and deception. During an interview, if individuals place their hands in front of their mouth when answering incriminating questions, investigators often suspect deception. If a speaker does this when addressing a group, the audience may reach the same conclusion. Psychologists examining human behavior relevant to communication determined that only 7 percent of any message is communicated by words; 38 percent is conveyed vocally (e.g, the tone of voice, inflection, volume, or rate of speech); and the remaining 55 percent of the message is transmitted by nonvocal means or body language. (6)

Most important, how speakers present themselves to an audience determines their effectiveness as a public speaker. They must sell themselves to their audience before attempting to relay a message. The first few minutes of any program, when the audience makes its initial impression of the speaker, remain vital to a successful speech. A positive impression will make the audience more receptive to the speaker's message. In contrast, a negative first impression only will make the speaker's job more difficult. A variety of factors can influence the way an audience receives a program and speakers must use each one in varying degrees to build a successful presentation.


Speaking in public for the first time does not have to be a frightening experience. Through practice and preparation, first-time speakers can succeed and feel an outstanding sense of accomplishment. They should consider an effective presentation simply as a conversation with their audience.

With acknowledgment and practice of certain techniques, officers or administrators easily can become better communicators. In doing so, they can better understand their coworkers, themselves, and the communities they serve.


(1.) Roger Flax, "Inter-Office Memo," NY Daily News, January 21, 1990, B2.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Office of Public Safety, Manual for Instructor Development (New York, 1975), Module IV, 5.

(4.) Stan Walters, Principles of Kinesic Interviews and Interrogation (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1996).

(5.) For more information, see, for example, Sue Adams and Tony Sandoval, "Subtle Skills for Building Rapport: Using Neuro-Linguistic Programming in the Interview Room," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 2001, 1-5.

(6.) A. Mehrabian, Silent Messages (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1970).

(7.) Roger Flax, "A Manner of Speaking," TWA Ambassador Magazine, May/June 1990, 38.

RELATED ARTICLE: Elements to Consider When Making a Presentation

* Appearance: A neat professional appearance is mandatory. The audience will make their first impression solely on the way the speaker looks, even before hearing any spoken words. The speaker should dress comfortably in suitable professional attire.

* Stance/Poise: Speakers should walk and stand with their head up and shoulders back and project a quiet, confident attitude. Speakers should try to recognize and avoid any nervous mannerisms common to first-time speakers (e.g., keeping hands in pockets, crossing arms, tightly gripping the podium) that an audience can discern as nervousness.

* Gestures: Because most people use their hands and arms when engaged in a conversation, a speaker should ensure these gestures are spontaneous and natural and never allow them to overcome the presentation. Repeating the same gesture too often or using gestures, such as finger-pointing or handling a pen, pointer, or other object, also can prove distracting. Practicing a presentation in front of a mirror can help a speaker observe and identify any distracting gestures.

* Facial Expressions: Speakers' facial expressions should convey their personality along with warmth and sincerity toward the topic. If a speaker looks interested and friendly, the audience will reciprocate. Because most audiences want the speaker to succeed, the speaker should think positive and not say phrases, such as "I'm new at this" or "I'm pretty nervous up here."

* Eye Contact: Confident speakers who develop proper eye contact will communicate more efficiently by making each audience member believe the speaker is speaking directly to them. A speaker visually can divide the room into quadrants and locate a few people in each quadrant with whom to make eye contact. (7) The duration of the eye contact should last between 3 and 5 seconds.

* Voice/Inflection: If rooms are large and the speakers' voices are naturally low, they should consider using an amplifier. Speakers should modulate the tone of their voice, change the pitch, and vary the pace of their speech.

* Vocabulary: Speakers always should ensure correct pronunciations and definitions of difficult words and use proper grammar and language as simple as possible so their presentation remains easy to comprehend by all levels of the audience.

* Enthusiasm: By choosing a topic of interest to them, speakers easily can get excited about what they will share with their audience, which will allow them to concentrate on their message and convey the information as valid and important. Additionally, a speaker's enthusiasm will carry over to the audience.
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Article Details
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Author:Tilton, James E.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
Previous Article:Law enforcement's response to people with mental illness. (Police Practice).
Next Article:Injuries from violent crime. (Crime Data).

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