Public speaking is an age-old art form that has shaped itself through history in the form of many great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and contemporary speakers like Tony Robbins and Nick Vujicic.
If you listen to speeches of different speakers, you’ll observe that each public speaker uses a unique way to convince the audience with their speech. The method that the speaker uses is not set in stone, rather it takes shape through personal experience, body language, style of speech delivery, authenticity in content, level of engagement with the audience, etc., all of which differs from person to person that ultimately makes public speaking a form of art.
Public speaking has sustained and progressed through centuries. While some claim there are rules and tested principles to adhere to in public speaking, others don’t agree with the same. So, is public speaking an art or a science? Read on to find out.
Art or Science?
“Public speaking is the art of giving power to words – to influence, inspire and transform lives.”Dirish Mohan
While art brings attention to an individual’s perception of the world using one’s creativity and authenticity, science is very structured and planned out in a specific way based on tested experiments and explanations.
“The value is always in the eye of the beholder. What is worthless to one person may be very important to someone else.” This holds true for art, but what about science? The above quote is not synonymous with science. In science, what one person sees is exactly what the other will also see. It holds the same value.
Reasons Public Speaking is an Art
There is enough evidence to consider public speaking an art form. Let’s discuss a few of them below.
1. Developing a brand that is self-made and authentic
The act of public speaking is considered an art since public speaking requires talent and inspiration to create a lasting impact.
Famous artists like Vermeer and Munch awed viewers by their very unique techniques and emotions in portraying ordinary events in their paintings. That uniqueness was what garnered their fame that spans across centuries and millions of people.
In the same way, just like art, public speaking also requires that one thing that makes a speaker self-made. The speaker will develop a specific style or technique based upon their character or through inspiration that makes him/her stand out.
2. Unassuming display of personality and charisma while delivering the speech
While some believe public speaking is imparting one’s knowledge to a group of people, it is much more than that.
Imagine sitting through a seminar on ‘Professional Ethics,’ where the speaker is spouting information at a consistent pace with a voice like a pre-recorded message. It’s guaranteed you’ll forget whatever that was taught in the seminar by the time you reach home.
Apart from the content of the speech, how the speech is delivered plays a huge role in public speaking.
Take famous public speakers in history like John F. Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher. John F. Kennedy’s style of addressing the public was more like a conversation than a speech, which made him such an inspirational and compelling communicator.
“Public speaking is the art of diluting a two-minute idea with a two-hour vocabulary.”JFK
Margaret Thatcher’s personality infused with her speaking style made her a strong and argumentative speaker.
Thus, this aspect of public speaking makes it a definite form of art that shifts and takes shape depending on person to person.
Check out Margaret Thatcher’s ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech, delivered at the Conservative party conference in Brighton on 10 October 1980 – Margaret Thatcher – The lady’s not for turning. Her strong personality resonates with her speech amazingly well.
3. Use of rhetoric
“Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.”Plato
Rhetoric is one of the important components in public speaking that makes the speech articulate and persuasive. Developing the skill of rhetoric is in itself an art. There are three strategies to develop rhetoric – Ethos, logos and pathos.
These three strategies encompass the ability of the speaker to show authority in their speech, allow the audience to infer by using logic based on the facts of the speech and appeal to the audience using emotion.
Mastering it cannot be learned in a textbook. Rather it has to be developed by the speaker in whichever way it suits the specific individual depending on their style of speech delivery.
Famous speakers like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mister Rogers are known for their remarkable use of rhetoric in public speaking.
In the year 1969, Fred Rogers makes a statement to the Senate for $ 20 million PBS funding so his show wouldn’t get cut. His statement came after many other’s testimonies failed to get the green light. Watch this video to see how Fred Rogers uses emotional intelligence and authenticity to convince the senate – Fred Rogers testifies before the Senate
“One of the first things that a child learns in a healthy family is trust, and I trust what you have said that you will read this. It’s very important to me. I care deeply about children.” In these lines, Fred Rogers uses ethos (ethical appeal) to make the senator understand his character and credibility.
He uses pathos (emotional appeal) in many places in his speech including the song at the end. You can observe the emotional tone of voice throughout his entire speech. In the lines, “I’m very much concerned, as I know you are, about what’s being delivered to our children in this country,” he tries to persuade the senator by appealing to his emotions.
To convince the senator of the reason he should provide the funding, Fred Rogers uses logos (logical appeal) in the following lines; ”I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”
4. Establishing an emotional connect with the audience
There are several ways public speakers use to let their audience know they care. Sharing relatable stories and occurrences in their life and exposing their imperfections are few ways that are used to connect with the audience.
“Speakers who talk about what life has taught them never fail to keep the attention of their listeners.”Dale Carnegie
Some speakers digress sometimes or make it all about themselves. But the ones who know their audience and connect with them, do leave a big impact. This is one of the most important aspects of public speaking that makes it an art form.
Emotional connect cannot be achieved by following strict rules and procedures. It can only be achieved by putting oneself out there in the most authentic sense and showing their vulnerability to the audience.
5. Improvising according to the audience’s response
Sometimes things don’t pan out the way the speaker intended it to be with the audience. It could be due to various uncontrollable reasons or in cases where the speaker hadn’t done appropriate homework regarding the focus groups of the audience he was supposed to address.
This calls for improvisation. The speaker should be spontaneous in finding better ways to engage the audience or he/she would lose their attention.
Just knowing the facts or showing a presentation is the easiest part of public speaking. A good speaker would sense the audience and adapt to their reactions. All of which makes it an art form.
Reasons Public Speaking Could be a Science
Public speaking is not a science, but some things take it away from it being an art. While it’s not exactly a science, there are some principles such as knowing your audience, making eye contact, etc., which make it more structured.
Here are a few points to understand why public speaking is perceived as a science by some people.
1. Process of public speaking
Cicero, a Roman philosopher developed a five-step process for public speaking which is used to teach public speaking to date. He called them the five cannons or tenets of rhetoric – Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory and Delivery.
Although such framed rules and processes are helpful, practically speaking, they don’t always work in public speaking because, to be truly comfortable and excel in public speaking, each speaker must find his/her unique style of speaking and writing a speech.
2. Pre-requisites of a good speaker
To get the attention of an audience, even though emotional connect is a big factor to enhance the retention, there are some basic pre-requisites that every speaker should have.
To be a professional speaker, there are some key requirements that the speaker should possess like being relevant to the content, keeping up with the current situation of the topic that is discussed, appropriate stage presence and strong use of body language and other aesthetics.
These universal guidelines might suggest that public speaking be considered a science.
3. Role of neuromuscular activity in speech giving
Various activities of our body’s functioning play a huge part in public speaking. Learning to have control over all of it is essential while delivering a speech before a big audience.
Nervousness is our body’s automatic stress response to something new which may result in sweaty palms and shaking knees. When people are nervous, they start to fidget on stage or restrict themselves to any movement which doesn’t look good.
When on stage and in front of several people, it’s difficult to maintain proper eye contact with the audience since we are used to one on one eye contact. So, the eye muscles of a public speaker must be trained to target individuals in a group for creating an impact with the audience.
Lastly and most obviously, breathing is an important bodily function that should be regulated while public speaking since delivering a speech involves a lot of breath.
The involvement of so many bodily functions essential for effective delivery of speech could be a strong point in suggesting public speaking has scientific characteristics.
4. Considering the technical aspect
The technical aspects of public speaking are crucial for overall good performance. These are the aspects that need important attention which involves everything other than the speech in itself.
For example, ensuring to have a good working microphone or based on the speaker’s style, an ear microphone if one likes to walk on stage and use both hands while speaking, ensuring a good amount of stage space for speaking, making sure light is sufficient on the stage, having a working projector if a presentation is prepared with the speech, music requirements if any, is in place and other backstage preparation.
All of this takes a structured approach around public speaking.
5. Public speaking skills can be learned
As opposed to art about which people have the notion that it cannot be learned to achieve excellence, public speaking is a skill that can be developed by learning and practice.
There are a few basic steps and methods in delivering a speech that one can easily learn to become a great speaker.
Workshops, classes and online platforms provide various means by which a person can improve their public speaking skills.
6. Disregarding confirmation bias
One of the problems with public speaking is confirmation bias. As defined by the Oxford dictionary, “Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.”
When it comes to public speaking, people get pieces of advice for good speech delivery from various people who share them based upon their personal experience.
Developing a speaking style based on that generally doesn’t work. Finding one’s style by trial and error on stage is also a taxing solution.
To avoid all this, aspiring public speakers go for research-backed tips for public speaking.
One of those researchers is Maegan Stephens who is a specialist in executive communications at Quantified Communications, a company based in Austin, Texas. They had come up with tips for public speaking by analyzing numerous presentations from executives, politicians and keynote speakers.
To disregard confirmation bias is to disregard public speaking as a pure art form. So, to overcome confirmation bias, following some rules for becoming a better public speaker could be considered a scientific approach.
How Both Sides Can Apply to Your Public Speaking Journey
Both art and science have different ways of expressing, but the ultimate goal is the same.
Even if art and science involve different approaches, it depends solely on the individual which approach he/she favours or which approach suits best.
Although experienced speakers hands down consider public speaking an art, for a beginner it’s not wrong to see it from a science perspective. Starting there and working one’s way towards the understanding that public speaking is an art form that should be shaped and styled as per the individual’s personality will make one an authentic and impactful speaker.
1. Understanding the basics and adding a personal twist
As discussed before under “Reasons public speaking could be a science,” it is important for a beginner to develop some basic skills that are required for good speech delivery like learning the audience composition, focusing on audience retention, avoid digressing and maintaining strong body language.
Post this, it is important to employ the artistic side of public speaking like forming an emotional connection with the audience, sharing an anecdote and effective use of humour if needed.
2. Applying art and science to separate focus groups of the audience
Before giving a speech, a speaker will assess the audience he/she will be addressing. Understanding audience composition is the stepping stone for public speaking.
If the audience is composed of a set of people with similar expectations, drafting a speech, in that case, will be very easy when compared to when the audience composition is considerably mixed.
In this case, there are different focus groups among the audience, and satisfying the entirety is the priority. In this aspect, public speaking could be considered both an art and a science.
For those in the audience who are much interested in the facts and figures, emotional connection is of no value here. But for those who need to be made understood by stories and anecdotes, they’ll need to be entertained while making sure they understand the speech.
3. How art and science provide distinct vantage points in public speaking
“The art of communication is the language of leadership.”James Humes
It is important to understand that both art and science allows us to grasp reality but in very different ways. Some people perceive public speaking to be a form of art while some consider it to be science.
Some could naturally capture the audience’s attention using their charisma or their personality. Such people might perceive that science plays a very small role in public speaking.
While the other group of people requires a structured framework for public speaking. They might need to develop certain skills and they require to be prepared for any challenges. It depends on the eye of the beholder.
4. Finding a balance between subjective and objective
“The well-balanced intelligent speaker is the natural leader in any group of which he is a part”Ralph C. Smedley, Founder of Toastmasters International
For every public speaker, to give a compelling presentation, it is important that they find a balance where one can attain all the objectives that one wishes to achieve by giving a particular speech – Having the audience’s full attention, receiving an exemplary response, creating an impact, etc.
The speaker could employ whatever means is comfortable for oneself to reach out to the audience. He/she could choose a more emotional approach or a more structured approach. Sometimes finding the right balance is key.
To conclude, understanding whether public speaking is an art or a science is not simple or measurable.
Public speaking is one of the oldest art forms in history that is very impactful, inspirational and stimulating in nature which can be distinguishable among different speakers.
So, based on what was discussed, public speaking is more of an individualistic art than a tested science. For any person to become an extraordinary public speaker, they should consider public speaking an artistic endeavour, find their unique style in authenticity and craft it to their meaning of perfection.