What is public speaking exactly? Is public speaking just about the stage? Or the lectern? Or the Best Man’s (or Woman’s) speech?
Recently I went to a local planning hearing – my first – and found myself thinking more about the power of the ‘public speaker’ than the issues at hand. As a member of the public (albeit heavily impacted by the proposed plans) I was allowed to sit in the ‘audience’, but to say nothing.
The council representatives who were presenting to the hearing, and individuals who had been permitted to question them, were sitting opposite each other at tables arranged in a horseshoe shape, both sets of contributors at right-angles to me. Each speaker had a desk microphone they could manipulate for best effect.
As soon as the Inspector (who sat between the presenters and therefore faced us) handed over to the Chief Planning Officer and she began speaking, my heart sank. I guess I’m not getting any younger, and have some difficulty deciphering words from mouths that are moving very quickly. This planning officer sat hunched over her notes and began with the microphone situated, as far as I could see, just to the left of her face. However, her head was turned to the Inspector – on her right. Of the words that tumbled out of her mouth, I could make out a series of ‘Ums’ and ‘erms’ – nothing more.
Suddenly somebody from the audience shouted ‘Can’t hear!’ and the Inspector asked the officer to move the microphone around to the centre of the space in front of her. She did so, and continued. Now, she was louder … but spoke as quickly as before and much of what she said was unintelligible.
The meeting was halted once more as one of the individuals sitting opposite her put his hand up. ‘Please could you move your mouth away from the microphone. There’s a boom in the room.’ Admittedly, this guy was considerably older than me (or at least he looked it) and perhaps, due to age-related issues, his hearing was being scrambled by the microphone, the mumbling and the room’s poor acoustics. But it was the second time the meeting was stopped for reasons involving the same speaker. Dutifully she moved the microphone away and began again, and by that time I could make nothing out. And it got me thinking about what is public speaking.
What Is Public Speaking
If communication is for the benefit of the person or people you are communicating with, then the person speaking on a public platform has a responsibility – to engage, acknowledge and inform their audience, as well as to convey the intended message. In this instance, the Chief Planning Officer never once checked that her ‘audience’ could actually hear her. She did not once check that her audience understood what she was saying about the plans. And these are controversial plans – plans that impact upon the lives of those living in their path – so the failure to even engage with those people beggars belief.
So what’s the message? Yes – public speaking is about more than holding court from the stage; yes – it’s about capturing the attention of your listeners whilst delivering your message. But much more important is to care about that message, to care about how it’s delivered, and to care about your audience. That, is our answer to what is public speaking. (Just wish the council planners knew it.)