How to speak in public
Public speaking can feel like an ordeal, but take a lesson from the ancients: it’s a skill you can develop like any other
by John BoweBust of L Licinius Nepos, 1-25 CE. Courtesy the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
John Boweis a speech consultant who uses ancient Greek rhetorical teachings to help individuals and companies learn to give less anxious, more effective presentations. He is the author of I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection (2020). He lives in New York City.
Edited by Christian Jarrett
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Whether you’re facing a large crowd, a handful of colleagues at a conference table, a job recruiter over Zoom, or trying to hold your own during a family fight, the all-too-common experience of speech anxiety can feel like a frustrating act of self-betrayal. You wish to share your knowledge, beliefs and feelings. Yet the moment you decide it’s time to communicate them, the words … don’t … seem. To Want. To Come. Out. Of. Your Mouth.
Think about our usual ways of describing the problem: ‘I’m shy.’ ‘I suffer from speech anxiety.’ ‘I just don’t know how to be myself in front of a group.’ We often act as though the problem stems from a psychological or emotional shortcoming within us. After years of watching our looser-tongued peers express their ideas and passions, it’s easy to become resentful and alienated. These negative feelings can reinforce our original reaction: There’s too much stuff inside of me that I can’t express! There’s something wrong with me.
This diagnosis would have seemed utterly baffling to the ancient Greek educators and philosophers who invented language theory in the 4th century BCE, and then taught it to virtually every student in the West for 2,000 years until a couple of centuries ago. From the ancient perspective, public speaking, like writing or, for that matter, military prowess, was considered an art form – teachable, learnable, and utterly unrelated to issues of innate character or emotional makeup. To them, the idea of expecting the average, speech-ignorant person to be reliably eloquent would be like expecting an untrained adolescent to perform like a seasoned warrior on the battlefield. Their take holds true today – it’s unrealistic to expect yourself to be competent, much less masterful, in an art form you’ve never been taught to practise.
Under the larger discipline of rhetoric (the study of persuasion in all its forms), students in antiquity spent years acquiring a strategic understanding of how to temper logic, emotions and words with poise. Speaking well depended upon learning how to analyse all sides of an argument and assaying all possible avenues of commonality with one’s audience before expressing an opinion. Similar to our approach to reading and writing today, speech training was a comprehensive, critical approach to knowledge, with an additional emphasis on psychology and social interaction.
The average American today speaks around 16,000 words a day. If you consider the role of speech in family life, social interactions and on the job, it’s easy to see that now, as much as ever, the ability to communicate effectively is the single most critical skill we possess. If we speak in ways that are off-putting, vague or hard to understand, it doesn’t matter how smart, hardworking or even good we might be: people will find us difficult to understand and work with. Our usefulness to others will decline with every strained interaction. By contrast, if we speak clearly and well, people will find us easy to understand. They’ll ‘get’ us. They’ll like us.
Recently, I worked with an architect who complained: ‘I went to school for years, thinking that after graduation, my job would be to design stuff. The reality is that probably 90 per cent of my time goes towards explaining ideas, working on presentations and managing discussions between teams and clients.’ Her observation holds true across virtually every advanced occupation. Brilliant as you might be while toiling at your work station, and as important as your solo endeavours are, your social and team value is judged by your ability to skilfully handle phone calls, Zoom meetings, sales and technical presentations, and client interactions. If this sounds far-fetched, how many high-ranking executives can you recall who have poor public speaking skills?
Given the importance of clear, effective speech, you’d think we’d spend lots of time learning to do it in school. Yet for most of us, at least in the West, education consists of 12 to 20 years’ reading, writing and solving mathematics problems – on paper. As our society has become increasingly knowledge- and information-based, rhetoric and speech instruction have fallen almost entirely out of favour. Many of us graduate unprepared to practise the central activity of our lives, and speech remains the most important subject we’ve never thought about.
So how might one learn in a hurry from the Greeks about speaking to an audience without anxiety? I’ll skip the tips about where to stand on stage and how to use PowerPoint, and instead use this Guide to outline the most radical and useful element of ancient language theory. You’ll learn to speak in public – to any audience, anywhere – not by mastering your emotions, but by paying better attention to how others listen to you.