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The Myths About Public Speaking

Our fears of public speaking result not only from what we do not know or understand about public encounters. These misconceptions and myths persist among professional people as well as the general public. Let us examine these persistent myths about public communication, which, like our ignorance and misunderstandings of the fundamental assumptions and requirements of public speaking, exacerbate our fears and prevent our development as competent public persons.

Perhaps the most dogged and persistent myth about public communication is that it is a activity reserved for unusual occasions. After all, how often do you make a public speech? There are only a few special occasions during the year when even an outgoing professional person will step behind a podium to give a public speech, and many professional people can count on one hand the number of public speeches given in a career, Surely, then, public communication is a rare activity reserved for especially important occasions.

This argument, of course, ignores the true nature of public communication and the nature of the occasions in which it occurs. When we engage with people we do not know well to solve problems, share understanding and perspectives, advocate points of view, or seek stimulation, we are engaged in public speaking. Public communication is a familiar, daily activity that occurs in the streets, in restaurants, in boardrooms, courtrooms, parks, offices, factories and meetings.

Is public speaking an unusual activity reserved for special occasions and restricted to the lectern or the platform? Hardly. Rather it is, and should be developed as, an everyday activity occurring in any location where people come together.

A related misconception about public communication is the belief that the public speaker is a specially gifted individual with innate abilities and God-given propensities. While most professional people would reject the idea that public speakers are born, not made, they nevertheless often feel that the effective public communicator has developed unusual personal talents to a remarkable degree. At the heart of this misconception like the myth of public speaking as a special activity is an overly narrow view of what a public person is and does.

Development as an effective public communicator begins with the understanding that you need not be a nationally-known, speak-for-pay, professional platform speaker to be a competent public person. The public speaker is an ordinary person who confronts the necessity of being a public person and uses common abilities to meet the fundamental assumptions and requirements of daily public encounters.

A less widespread but serious misconception of public speaking is effected in the belief that public speeches are made for the age. A public speech is something viewed as an historical event which will be part of a continuing and generally available public record. Some public speeches are faithfully recorded, transcribed, reproduced, and made part of broadly available historical records. Those in stances are rare compared to the thousands of unrecorded public speeches made every day.

Public communication is usually situation-specific and ephemeral. Most audiences do well if they remember as much as 40 per cent of what a speaker says immediately after the speaker concludes; even less retained as time goes by. This face is both reassuring and challenging to the public communicator. On the one hand, is suggests that there is room for human error in making public pronouncements; on the other hand, it challenges the public speaker to be as informed as possible and strive to defeat the poor listening habits of most public audiences.

Finally, professional people perhaps more than other groups often subscribe to the misconception that public communication must be exact science, that if it is done properly it will succeed. The troublesome corollary to this reasoning is that if public communication fails, it is because it was improperly prepared or executed. This argument blithely ignores the vagaries of human interaction. Public speakers achieve their goals through their listeners, and the only truly predicable aspect of human listeners is their unpredictability. Further, public messages may succeed despite inadequate preparation and dreadful delivery.

Professional people often mismanage their fears of public communication. Once we understand what public encounters assume and demand, once we unburden ourselves of the myth that handicap our growth as public persons, we can properly begin to develop as competent public communicators.

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