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The Importance of Communication and Public-Speaking Skills.

Almost every profession requires public speaking, but ours especially. We need to promote this skill among our colleagues and persuade more environmental health professionals to actively participate in events and gatherings, get acquainted with the idea of participation, be willing to share their thoughts, and contribute in any way possible. To enunciate well, perform professionally, and satisfy an audience, one should become familiar with the elements of communication and use them in one's presentations.

In early 1999, the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly academic publication read by many students and scholars around the country, held an online discussion forum about public speaking. The debate went on for several weeks, and the majority of participants who were experts in communication studies believed that in recent years, institutions of higher learning have paid less attention to speaking skills than in the past. It has become apparent to me, though--throughout my educational and professional life--that public speaking is an asset a professional individual must acquire and share with others. In other words, this skill has to be taught to students and needs to be honed throughout college life and into the job market.

Let's briefly explore some definitions of communication before talking about the elements of public speaking. Communication, a complex process, is not an easy skill to perfect. Nevertheless, it is the most significant skill in human life. We hear this from the voices quoted in Karen Casey and Martha Vanceburg's Promise of a New Day: A Book of Daily Meditations: "What most of us want is to be heard, to communicate," says one. A second believes that "To live in dialogue with another is to live twice. Joys are doubled by exchange and burdens are cut in half." Life becomes so easy with communication. This necessity of life, however, must be done right.

For the present context, the most relevant definitions (adapted from the American Heritage College Dictionary, third edition, and Robert Cathcart's Post Communication: Criticism and Evaluation) are as follows:

* the expression of oneself in such a way that one is readily and clearly understood;

* the state of being connected, one with another;

* the process of transferring meaning from one individual to another;

* a process whereby a source elicits a response in a receiver through the transmission of a message, be it sign or symbol, verbal or non verbal; and

* the technology employed in transmitting messages.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle identified five elements in his Rhetoric (fourth century B.C.):

* the speaker,

* the speech (message),

* the audience,

* the occasion, and

* the effect.

By constructing this list, Aristotle was advising speakers to construct speeches for different audiences on different occasions for different effects.

Now we have the picture. Let's find a good frame for it. Transplanting the five elements of communication to the environmental health profession, one can posit a speaker John Doe (a sanitarian), a speech ("The Effects of Latex Gloves on Human Health"), an audience (environmental health professionals), an occasion (Annual Educational Conference), and an effect (means of transferring the message). To deliver its message effectively, the simplified outline of a presentation should look like this:

* Tell them what you are going to tell them.

* Tell them.

* Tell them what you told them.

In other words, your format should include 1) an introduction, 2) the body of the message, and 3) a summary and conclusion.

One of the best tools in mastering communication is listening. Listening to radio programs, watching educational video and programs on television, and listening to others all help people build up vocabulary, understand the proper use of quotations, and identify a variety of styles in public speaking. (Quoting from famous scholars and writers--both ancient and modern--is a useful tool.) Reading also can help, by advancing our knowledge and by reinforcing our comprehension skills.

Following are some important tips for presenting a public speech:

* Always be prepared ahead of time.

* Be organized and prioritize your materials.

* Review the materials a few times.

* Anticipate questions that may be asked.

* Find reasonable answers for those questions.

* Know your audience--to whom are you giving the speech?

* Use your hands and visual aids to emphasize important points.

* Use quotes from famous people.

* Give details and explanations in simple language--colloquially

* Add some flavor to your speech--include humor.

* Speak loudly and clearly.

* Be specific in your message and get to the point.

* Keep your speech to a reasonable length and allow time for questions.

Following these tips will help a speaker acquire the confidence needed to address the public without fear or reservation.

People communicate in different contexts:

* within (intrapersonal communication),

* between (interpersonal communication), and

* across people (group and mass communication). Public speaking falls in the categories of between and across, where we deliver our messages both verbally and nonverbally. It is worth knowing that only 25 percent of our communication is verbal: the rest (75 percent) is nonverbal. Only one-fourth of our communication consists of verbal messages and speech, and the remaining three-fourths involve factors such as facial expression; postures; gestures; body language; spatial dimensions; voice intonations; and the sequence, rhythm, and cadence of words.

Although the teaching of public speaking is currently neglected in higher education, there are signs that this situation will be remedied in the near future. Gradually, institutions of higher education in the United States are realizing that communication skills should be part of the curriculum. Let's hope that future graduates will acquire communication skills and use them in the workplace. In the meantime, senior members of organizations should encourage juniors and newcomers to get acquainted with the tools and procedures they need to deliver public messages. Participating in focus groups, joining community-affairs programs, being part of local school committees, and self-preparation are important tools for mastering public speaking.

Also helpful are the hundreds of professional associations in this country that provide quality services for their members, including annual conferences. For those of us who have already graduated and entered the workforce, continuing education is most beneficial when it includes many speakers who are experts in different areas of the profession.

Public speaking deserves a special emphasis in our field since environmental health professionals deal with the public on a daily basis. In the interest of improving all the lectures we give people in all walks of life--children in schools, homemakers, senior citizens, our peers, and other professionals--we should perfect our skills.

Dr. Leo E Parvis has spent many years working in both the public and the private sectors on issues related to environmental health an educational research. Dr. Parvis studied environmental health issues in the Mediterranean region for three years in the late 1980s, and in 1988 he received a Ph.D. in public health from Walden University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Currently, he is writing a book for parents--and professionals who work with parents--about protect in children from environmental health problems. He will be contributing material for the "Learning from Experience" column in every other issue of the Journal.
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Environmental Health Association
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Article Details
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Author:Parvis, Leo F.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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