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Public Speaking: Why Language is Important


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About this Lesson

  • Type: Video Tutorial
  • Length: 9:33
  • Media: Video/mp4
  • Use: Watch Online & Download
  • Access Period: Unrestricted
  • Download: MP4 (iPod compatible)
  • Size: 102 MB
  • Posted: 07/01/2009

This lesson was selected from a broader, comprehensive course, Public Speaking. This course and others are available from Thinkwell, Inc. The full course can be found at The full course covers getting started, preparing a speech, presenting the speech, audience considerations, types of speeches, small group communication, and more. The course features three renowned professors: Jess K. Alberts of Arizona State University, Brenda J. Allen of the University of Colorado at Denver, and Dan West of Ohio State University.

Jess K. Alberts is a professor of communication at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, where she was Director from 1995 until 2004. She currently serves as Director of the Conflict Transformation Project and is an associate with Project for Wellness and Work-life. Her research appears regularly in academic journals, and she recently co-authored “Human Communication in Society”. Undergraduates at Arizona State honored her classroom teaching skills with a "Last Lecture Award," and she has twice been a finalist for Professor of the Year at ASU. A nationally known speaker on interpersonal communication, Professor Alberts has given numerous presentations across the country on humor, conflict, and developing and maintaining a passionate life.

Brenda J. Allen is departmental chair and a professor of communication at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, where she teaches organizational communication. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on organizational communication and diversity and she serves on the editorial boards of several communication journals. In 2004, she authored the book “Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity”. While at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, she has been recognized with the First Annual Award for Outstanding Achievement for Commitment to Diversity and she received the Francine Meritt Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Lives of Women in Communication from the Women’s Caucus of the National Communication Association. Professor Allen is frequently invited to speak at community and professional events.

Dan West is the John A. Cassese Director of Forensics at Ohio University. Previously, he was a distinguished lecturer at Rice University, where he also acted as Director of Forensics. Under his direction, the team consistently placed in the top ten at national debate tournaments. While at Rice, Prof. West won the Outstanding Faculty Associate for Brown College (1999) and the award for Outstanding Teaching in the Humanities and Social Sciences (four times). He is well known for using his engaging speaking style in a variety of settings; his annual presentation of the Rice University Alcohol Policy to the freshman class was always a hit.

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Which of these three sentences do you think would make the best attention getter for a speech on education? "There is a crisis in American education." "A crisis exists in American education." "American education is in crisis." Well I would pick number three. Why? Because it's clear and more dramatic. In this tutorial, we are going to talk about the purposes of language. I want you to realize that the words that you choose to convey your ideas are just as important as the ideas that you are trying to communicate.
Now the first purpose of language is pretty clear, and that is we use language to communicate ideas. A wonderful aspect of language is that we can take a limited number of words, and we can create an unlimited number of ideas. Now you may have heard that the nonverbal aspects of language are the most important part of communication. Well, it is certainly true that nonverbals are very important in conveying meaning and emotion. But can you imagine giving a public speech with no words? So the words that you use are also very important in how effective you are in conveying your ideas. What people will understand will depend on how your frame it. Both the speaker and the listener have a responsibility for creating meaning, but the speaker has a greater responsibility and a greater stake in the outcome.
A second purpose of language is to create vivid mental images. Excellent speakers know that you can use language to create idea and to create pictures in the audience's minds. Let's say, for example, that you wanted to talk about the misery of homelessness. How could you convey that? Well you might say, "Being homeless is terrible. You never have a place to sleep. You're always hungry, and you constantly have to be on guard." What does this convey to you about misery? It probably doesn't sound very good, but does it sound miserable?
Instead, you might use language to create a very vivid picture of misery. You might try something like this. "What is it like to be homeless? Imagine that you're Vickie, a 17-year-old homeless teenager. You wake up every morning so hungry that your stomach hurts, and the stench of nearby garbage makes you nauseous. And you're exhausted from sleeping on the cold tarmac, curled up behind a dumpster. And even though you are tired, you can never go into a deep sleep because you have to be on your guard to make sure that you are not hurt or molested or robbed. But this isn't the worst part. The worst part is that today and tomorrow and next week and even next month will be no different. Maybe you can live with the sleep deprivation and the hunger, but how do you live without hope?" And you see how drawing this picture of Vickie and the misery that she lives in and the hopelessness of her situation greatly increases your understanding of the misery of the situation. So we don't want to just state an idea. You want to describe a picture that will convey that idea.
Communication and language in communication also have another important purpose. We use communication, especially the language within it, to create a bond of shared meaning. What this means is that when we talk we attempt to create meaning within our listeners that matches that which is in our own minds. But equally importantly, when we share meaning we typically create a bond between us and the audience as a speaker. One of the things that I was first surprised about when I started giving public speeches is how connected people felt to me after I gave the speech. That bond that gets connected during the speech extends for hours, days, even weeks after the speech. I've noticed that when I give a speech people will come up to me right after the speech--and sometimes later on a sidewalk or in a classroom--and they'll want to share with me their experiences about my topic. Or they'll ask questions, or just want to comment on something that I've said. So through the language we use, we create meaning, and we create connection.
Another important purpose of language is it says something about the speaker. That is, the language you choose communicates something about you. If you are articulate, people think, "Well there is a smart person, a well-informed person." And they think positively about you. On the other hand, if you use sexist, racist, or obscene language, people make assumptions about you. And even if those assumptions are not true, they respond to you based on those assumptions.
I was recently at an event where we were celebrating the involvement of women and girls in science, and everyone was in a celebratory mood and very happy about the experience. And one of the speakers got up, and in his speech he said that he was really glad to see more women and girls getting involved in science. Then he said the reason he was, was because we needed more science teachers. And we all knew that because women were warm and nurturing, they made really great teachers. Well, I want you to know that the teachers, professors, administrators, and science professionals in the audience thought that was pretty sexist of him to talk about women that way. Some people got kind of angry. Some even walked out. And even though I know that I shouldn't, now every time I see him on campus I think, "Hmm, there's that sexist guy." The words that you use influence how people perceive you.
We can also use language to increase our cultural understanding. We can examine a culture by looking at their everyday sayings or colloquialisms, and by looking at how they talk about people and language, we learn something about them. For example, in the United States we tend to really value direct speech, and when people aren't direct, we tend to criticize them. We have a couple of colloquialisms that express that criticism. We'll say things like, "Oh, he's just beating around the bush." Or, "Nah, don't listen to him, he's talking through his hat." Or we might say, "She's just talking out of both sides of her mouth." In this way, we convey that, in the United States, direct speech is very important to us.
We can also use language to convey our cultural perspective. Even though we may have very strong ideas, some of the ways we want to use language is to capture what it is like to be a part of that culture, to convey the meaning of that cultural experience, not just the ideas of that. A very good example of this is a speech by Sitting Bull in which he was trying to talk about the Native American and the white American relationship to the United States. And in his speech he really captured what it was like to be oppressed in the United States. What he said was, "What treaty have the Sioux made with the white man that we have broken? Not one. What treaty have the white man ever made with us that they have kept? Not one. When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world. The sun rose and set on their land. They sent 10,000 men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them? What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red, because I am a Sioux, because I was born where my father lived, because I would die for my people and my country?"
Another purpose of language is to evoke emotion. Language will be your most effective tool in creating emotion in your audience. Typically, of course, you are going to want to use a few emotional appeals in your persuasive speeches, but you are also going to want to use emotional appeals in your informative speeches. You don't want to overdo it, but when you do use an emotional appeal, it is going to be language that is going to create that appeal. This morning, I heard an example of this on TV. There was a father on TV talking about a fund-raiser for cerebral palsy. He was talking about his five-year-old son who had the disease. He talked about how difficult it was to watch his son become more ill as he moved from walking by himself to walking with crutches to walking with braces and finally being confined to a wheelchair. He talked about how hard it was to watch his son degenerate in this way. He ended his appeal with this statement: "Our children are not supposed to die before we do. No parent should have to watch his child die a little each day."
Another purpose of language is to create enjoyment of thought and sound. Contrary to all of the kind of sobering examples that I've been using, we can also use language in interesting and fun ways. We can use interesting sounds, and we can also create interesting images and tell amusing stories. For example, Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Alice was famously claimed to have said, "If you can't say something nice, come sit by me." Audiences enjoy humorous examples and anecdotes and stories like this, and we can use language to amuse them.
Now that we have talked about the purposes of language, I want you to sit down to write your speeches. Think very carefully about the words that you are choosing to convey your ideas. And remember that the words are as important as the ideas. Let's look at an unusually effective example of language in a public speech.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
Preparing the Speech ! Using Language [page 2 of 4]
Why Language Is Important
Copyright © 2001, Thinkwell Corp. All Rights Reserved. 82462/18/02
Preparing the Speech ! Using Language [page 1 of 4]
Why Language Is Important
Copyright © 2001, Thinkwell Corp. All Rights Reserved. 82462/18/02

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