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The importance of public speaking in forming and shaping human history cannot be overstated. Effective public speakers mobilize, inform, and change the hearts and minds of their audience. This is hugely important in the field of public health, where our efforts range from persuading people to wash their hands to informing them of immediate disease threats and how they can protect themselves. This module provides an overview of different types of public speaking with a focus on health and social change, in addition to some research and analysis activities and practice exercises.

Part One: Qualities of an Effective Public Speaker

Before delving into different types of speeches, strategies for organizing information contained in a speech, and how to use language to your advantage, it is worthwhile to discuss other qualities that make a public speaker effective. There is some debate about what constitutes an effective public speaker. To be certain, most people who regularly speak in public develop their own style over time. In other words, there is no single correct way to speak in public. Students of public speaking should strive to find the groove in which they feel comfortable, speaking in their own way.

Let’s consider one of the most effective and inspiring public speakers in modern history: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was a Baptist preacher-turned-civil rights activist whose efforts helped to bring about radical social and legislative changes in the U.S. He motivated, inspired, and connected with millions of people worldwide, and this can be attributed to his skills at the podium, skills that derive from the cadence and call-and-response style of Baptist ministers. One of his most celebrated speeches, “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” was delivered the night before his assassination. In this speech, King used a variety of stylistic and linguistic tools to inspire his audience. He builds in repetition, a method often used to hammer home a point or make the speech more memorable to his audience. The imagery he uses relies heavily on Biblical references, which was not only appropriate given the social context of the time and place, but also given his own background as a preacher. He communicates a complicated set of emotions: anger, frustration, resignation, and, somehow simultaneously, hope. He varies the volume and pacing with which he speaks, keeping the audience entranced. He speaks slowly and clearly, enunciating every word. It is almost as though he is singing.

Another famous American renowned for his speeches – President Abraham Lincoln – had a very different style. While King was handsome and youthful, Lincoln was described as awkward, ungainly, even homely, his appearance exacerbated by sunken cheekbones and riddled with deep facial lines. Moreover, while King’s voice was deep, smooth, and powerful, Lincoln’s voice was rumored to be shrill, high-pitched, and unpleasant to the ear. These differences in appearance and style did not diminish Lincoln’s speaking power, however. Not only are his speeches among the most beautifully written texts in history (surely there are few words more powerful than those concluding his First Inaugural Address but his physical awkwardness and appearance of worry and fatigue almost worked in his favor as the passion fueling his words lit up his eyes. As one newspaper noted after a speech in 1860, “Mr. Lincoln spoke nearly two hours and we believe he would have held his audience had he spoken all night.”

As with any other skill, developing your own style and comfort at the podium comes with time and practice. The only real way to build confidence as a public speaker is to speak publicly as often as possible. That said, there are some common tools that strong public speakers use to connect with their audience.

  • Physical Delivery

Giving a speech is not simply about what you say. In 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy took part in the first-ever televised presidential debate. An analysis of this debate indicates that, while Nixon came across as nervous, perspiring and unpleasant to the eye, Kennedy was calm, poised, and handsome. Famously, those who watched the debate on television concluded that Kennedy was the winner, while those who listened to the debate on the radio picked Nixon as the winner. Physical delivery and the many components it can include (e.g., eye contact, body language/fidgeting) is an important facet of public speaking.

Eye contact and body language are difficult to teach. Public speaking students are often asked to identify at least one person with whom they feel comfortable making eye contact, and slowly moving from that person during a speech in an effort to engage more of the audience. It is important to practice eye contact: engaging your audience in this non-verbal way will help to maintain their attention. Another strategy for engaging your audience comprises, if the situation allows for it, taking small steps around the stage. This helps to keep the different standing or seating sections of your audience alert as you approach them.

Fidgeting - whether in the form of nervous hand gestures, swaying back and forth, or tapping one’s foot - is a common concern among those who speak in public. To be sure, fidgeting can distract audience members from what you’re saying. Incorporating calming body language is an important tool in public speaking (see exercise on fidgeting in this section).

  • Vocal Delivery and Pacing

Public speakers may struggle sometimes with speaking too quickly, stumbling over their words and forgetting to breathe. A common concern is that, were they to take a breath, the audience would notice. Pauses and slowing the pacing of your speaking may feel very unnatural for a public speaker, but it is nearly imperceptible by the audience. For example, in his first inaugural address 85 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (delivering one of the most famous lines in speech history: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"  takes considerable time to pause and speak slowly, allowing his audience to process his words.

Senator Marco Rubio fell victim to this tendency when providing the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2013. He spoke too quickly, stumbled over his words, and looked quite nervous as he reached for a bottle of water. This was in stark contrast to the calm, confident, and evenly-paced cadence that characterizes President Obama’s speaking style, as it did President Reagan’s in the 1980s. The lesson to be learned here is this: if you need a minute, take a minute! Whether it’s to take a breath, collect your thoughts, or, yes, to grab a sip of water, your audience will wait.

A common pitfall of many people called to speak in public is the “verbal filler.” Fillers refer to the uhhhhs and ummmms with which we are all too familiar. Fillers can distract your audience and communicate your own lack of preparedness for and comfort with your material. Learning to feel comfortable with pausing during your speech is recommended not only to slow your pacing, but to avoid fillers.

Research Activity 1: Confidence Building Exercise

Watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk: “Your body language may shape who you are”. Before your next presentation, exam, interview, or other activity that is somewhat anxiety-inducing, practice some of the power posing she discusses in this talk.

  • Fidgeting Exercise

In addition to practicing Amy Cuddy’s power posing exercise, an exercise that has helped to curb nervous gestures and fidgeting of some of my students comes in the form of a relaxation script from Inner Health Studio.

  • Vocal Pacing Exercise

My students have always felt awkward participating in this exercise, but it is effective at encouraging them to slow down. Below is some text taken from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s webpage entitled “Cigarette Smoking and Tobacco Use among People of Low Socioeconomic Status.” You will see that the text has several slashes in it. Read the paragraph out loud, but every time you encounter a slash, stop and take a full breath, inhaling and exhaling completely, before proceeding. This is, of course, not a desirable pace at which to speak in a real life setting, but it should help you become more comfortable with the occasional pause.

There are several other vocal pacing, articulation, and breathing exercises that can be found here.

Part Two: Informative Speaking

Before we begin the discussion of informative speaking, it is important that, once you have a topic on which to speak, you understand your audience. You should understand your audience’s prior knowledge on your topic. If you have not already reviewed the Audience Module, please do so.

Informative speaking is an undertaking that can serve to empower your audience to make knowledgeable decisions, to change your audience’s perception of a topic, or even simply to introduce a new way of thinking. In order to be effective, informative speakers must be as objective and unbiased as possible, credible, and experienced with or informed about the topic.

Of these, credibility (presented in detail in the Source Module) is arguably the most important quality of an informative speaker, especially as it concerns health-related topics. You can establish your credibility on a topic with your credentials (e.g., title, higher education degree). If you do not have strong credentials on a topic, demonstrate your credibility by showing your personal experience and that you’ve done your homework on a topic. Cite reputable sources and leaders in the field, and make sure you are up-to-date on the topic.

Take the case of two celebrity scientists as an example. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist with advanced degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Columbia University. No one would dare question his academic qualifications when he speaks on science-related topics. In contrast, the science teacher Bill Nye (popularized by the award-winning television show “Bill Nye the Science Guy”) holds only a bachelors degree. Yet his continued research, advocacy, writing, television appearances, and involvement in the scientific community have contributed to his credibility on science-related topics.

Credibility can be established before you begin speaking. Consider the example of President Obama’s speech that announced the death of Osama bin Laden. If you only watch the first 18 seconds of this video, you can make inferences about the credibility of this speaker before he even opens his mouth to speak. The speech is taking place from the White House, adorned with the American flag, a chandelier-lit hallway, and a podium decorated with the seal of the President of the United States. Obama walks calmly but purposefully down the hallway. He commands his audience with a sense of power and authority from the outset. Personal appearance and demeanor all contribute to establishing credibility from the moment you approach your podium.


  • Tips

When informing an audience on a topic, it is important to generate and maintain their interest. Grabbing the audience’s attention and capturing their interest can involve beginning your speech with a story or a particularly shocking statistic. You can also start by asking the audience a question, involving them in a more active way. Watch Dr. David Casarett’s TED Talk, “A doctor’s case for medical marijuana.” He captures his audience’s interest from the outset by beginning his talk with, “I would like to tell you about the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me in my years of working as a palliative care physician.” He maintains the audience’s interest throughout by seamlessly incorporating statistics with colorful anecdotes, giving audience members the micro and macro side to his topic. He also establishes his credibility by showcasing both his educational credentials and his experience-based knowledge on his topic.

Along these lines, a successful informative speech will be memorable. You can increase your audience’s retention by repeating key concepts, phrases, and/or linguistic tools, in addition to appealing to visual learners as well as aural learners. Watch Paul Greenberg’s TED Talk, “The four fish we’re overeating – and what to eat instead.” Notice how he captures the audience’s attention with a story and incorporation of humor. He also establishes his credibility by sharing his occupation and world travel. He makes the speech memorable in two noteworthy ways: 1) by repeating a theme early on (listing four animals several times) to hammer home his point about our limited diet, and 2) by using visual aids (especially comparative visuals, such as a map of China) to communicate takeaways.

  • Organizing Speeches

There are a variety of styles you can use to organize your speeches, regardless of whether they are informative or persuasive. If you are speaking about a person or a historical occurrence (e.g., the AIDS crisis in America), for example, you might elect to arrange your speech chronologically. If you are speaking on a topic with several different ideas or sub-topics (e.g., the different Institutes that comprise the National Institutes of Health), you might address each sub-topic separately from the others. If you are making a comparison (e.g., medical school programs at different universities), you might structure your speech around identifying main similarities and differences. Paul Greenberg’s speech was structured in a way that he identified a problem and proposed a solution. Similar to this is the cause-effect structure of organizing your speech. The Public Speaking Project has a chapter that focuses specifically on outlining speeches and includes examples of a thorough content outline and the pared-down speaking outline.

Analysis Activity 1

Watch this video of Dr. Anthony Fauci (Director, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases) deliver a keynote address at the Einstein-Rockefeller-CUNY Center for AIDS Research. Address the following questions:

  1. How is Dr. Fauci’s credibility established in this piece? Given the topic, are his credentials important in conveying this message?

  2. How effectively does he maintain the audience’s interest?

  3. How memorable is his content?

  4. How would you advise him to make adjustments to his public speaking style if he was to speak in front of a non-expert audience?

Part Three: Persuasive Speaking

Persuasive speaking is an important tool in public health, medicine, and social change. Whether you’re encouraging an audience to change their minds/behavior and/or take action, your effectiveness can depend on your ability to construct an argument.


Understanding your Audience

In strategizing your approach to persuading your audience, it is essential that you first understand the attitudes and beliefs of your audience. Ask questions such as: What is their opinion of this topic? What do they already know about this topic? How might their own worldview (including demographics) influence their opinion on this topic? If your audience is receptive, they already know something about your topic and have developed a favorable opinion of your message. These audiences will respond well to your attempts to remind them of your commonalities and any action that you encourage them to take. If your audience is (as is typically the case) neutral, individual audience members may not have enough information on your topic to have formed an opinion. When addressing this type of audience, it is important first to gain their attention, perhaps by offering a personal anecdote or a startling statistic. Finally, you might speak in front of an audience that is largely hostile because they take issue with your position on a topic, the topic itself, or even you as a speaker. When addressing a hostile audience, begin the speech on areas of agreement, introducing the main point of your speech later on. You also want to acknowledge any reservations they have; this will communicate to your audience that you are not being smug or dismissive and have given the opposing viewpoint some thought.

Jimmy Kimmel Live produced a persuasive segment on vaccinating children. Although entertaining, the piece does little to engage anyone in the audience who might be hostile to the message or even the messenger (in fact, the piece derides those individuals). However, the piece might be informative and persuasive to neutral audience members who are not aware of this debate or lack a strong understanding of the issue. And, it goes without saying, it is likely that receptive audience members enjoyed this piece as having entertainment value.

Analysis Activity 2

Watch this video entitled Seven Awesome Charities to Donate to This Year.” Which speaker gave the most effective pitch? Why? What type of audience were these speakers addressing? How did the speakers structure their pitch?

  • Tips

Consider incorporating a few elements into a persuasive speech. First, integrating counter-arguments, or arguments that express the opposing position, can demonstrate not only that you as a speaker are well-versed on the topic, but can unravel the foundation of the opposing argument. It is important that counter-arguments be expressed fairly, thoroughly, and objectively.

You might also appeal to a variety of rhetorical strategies, including employing logic (i.e., logos), appealing to emotions or sympathies (i.e., pathos), and/or convincing the audience that you are ethical and credible as a persuader (i.e., ethos).

In the novel/movie To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is charged with defending a black man accused of assaulting a white woman to a jury of all white men. In his closing statement, he succinctly dismantles counter-arguments by indicating that they are based on insufficient evidence and flaws in reasoning. His use of logos is clear throughout the speech, most notably by pointing out that the victim was beaten by someone who had full use of his left hand (which the defendant did not). Finch establishes ethos in a few ways: 1) by empathizing with the victim, showing his moral character; 2) by finding common ground with his audience (e.g., by saying things like “our society” and “our courts”), improving their perceptions of his credibility; and 3) by suggesting that opposing council were not similar to the character of his audience members. Finally, Finch uses ethos, albeit minimally, when he reminds the jury that “a man’s life [is] at stake.”  

For tips on how to organize your arguments in a persuasive speech, visit The Public Speaking Project’s chapter on persuasion.


  • Ethics in Persuasion

Persuasion is an important and consequential tool, and persuasive speakers crafting an argument should do so responsibly. Below are two ethical considerations of persuasive speaking.

Emotional Appeals: Many speakers use emotional appeals in speaking about health- and social-related issues. Using emotional appeals is a strategy in campaigns as well; I am sure you could, off the top of your head, identify a commercial or poster that made you feel sad, angry, scared, amused, and/or happy. Appealing to positive emotions might give your audience a sense of hope or accomplishment, while fear appeals are often meant to motivate the audience to take action. However, using emotional appeals may be unethical (e.g., if the appeal causes mental distress or anguish, if the appeal manipulates the audience, if the appeal oversimplifies the argument).

Logical Fallacies: Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning that involve irrelevant or erroneous thinking, and they should be avoided in your speeches. These fallacies can come in the form of targeted attacks against a person supporting the other side of an argument, assumptions about causation versus correlation, generalizations, or even diversions. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has a comprehensive list and examples of different fallacies in logic.

Analysis Activity 3

A considerable amount of health communication has been produced in the past few decades on the subject of HIV/AIDS. One public service announcement (PSA) called “Let’s Stop HIV Together”, produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adopts a hopeful and optimistic message in encouraging viewers to get informed, tested, and involved. As a stark contrast, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s PSA called “It’s Never Just HIV” employs strong fear appeals. Watch these videos and address the following:

  1. Which campaign was more effective? Why?

  2. What were the strengths and weaknesses of each campaign?

  3. If you were a neutral audience and knew very little about HIV/AIDS in the United States, what assumptions would you make about the epidemic after seeing the fear appeals ad? The hope appeals ad?

  4. Do you believe either ad was unethical?

  5. Did you identify any logical fallacies in either PSA?

Part Four: Using Visual Aids

PowerPoint and other Presentation Programs

Presentation software such as PowerPoint© has the potential to clarify and enhance your messages. That said, it has been overused by public speakers in all sectors. People have strong and often conflicting opinions about PowerPoint. The GCP perspective is that you want to design a slide deck to enhance your speech but not to be its fundamental element. If the technology fails, or if someone can’t read your slides, your speech should be enough.

Assuming, of course, that your technology doesn’t fail, there are some tips to help engage your audience with a PowerPoint slide deck:

  1. Remember that your audience cannot read and listen at the same time. Text-heavy slides should be avoided. In fact, a speaker might choose to incorporate blank slides (usually with a black background) during their speech to bring the audience’s attention back to that speaker.

    2. Images have the potential to strengthen your connection with your audience and to make your speech more memorable. When using images, avoid watermarked or pixilated images that look unclear and unprofessional. There is more information on this in the next section.

    3. Try to center each slide around one thought, idea, or finding. This will help to ensure clarity.

    4. Any graphs or charts used on a slide that are comparing one or more variables should have colors that are visually distinct. Adobe has a tool that can help you find complementary and analogous colors, which are visually pleasing. 

    5. Fonts should be simple and readable.

    6. Each slide should be relevant to your current point. As noted in point one, if you are discussing something for which you do not have a slide, consider incorporating a blank slide.

    7. Speak to your audience; staring up at the screen disengages audience members.

Visual aids may be appropriate for a speech or presentation and can appeal not only to aural learners, but to visual learners. In fact, U.S. Congress members count on the ability of images and visual aids to drive home their points, attract attention to their cause, and mobilize voters. This National Public Radio segment describes “How Floor Charts Became Stars of Congress.” Using images during a speech is one potential tool to do three things:

Capture the audience’s attention: Your audience members are human, and the longer your speech, the greater the potential for audience members to become unfocused. Compelling images can help maintain your connection with your audience.

Enhance the audience’s understanding: When speaking about an experience, issue, or subject with which the audience is unfamiliar, using visual aids can help the audience envision the context of your speech. If you are presenting to a group of potential donors on a water well project in East Africa, for example, you can assume that at least some of your audience has not visited the region and use images to help transport them to this place of need.

Make your presentation memorable: Effective visual aids can make a presentation or speech memorable to an audience member long after the speech has concluded. As such, the visuals should complement the central message of the speaker. If someone is presenting about the myriad impacts of climate change on human health but selects visuals of animals endangered by climate change, an audience member might leave the speech remembering and primarily concerned about the impacts of climate change on endangered species. Images might be memorable because they appealed to an emotion (e.g., fear, sadness, hope), exposed you to something with which you were previously unfamiliar, and/or surprised or shocked you.

Analysis Activity 4

Watch Dr. Seyi Oyesola’s TED Talk: “A hospital tour in Nigeria.” Follow the visuals used in his speech, ignoring any PowerPoint-style text slides. How effective were the images he used in capturing your attention? Did the images increase your audience’s understanding of hospitals in Nigeria, or would words alone have done the job? Finally, are there certain images that stuck with you? Why?

  • Data Visualization and Infographics

Images alone are not always appropriate for some speeches. Data visualization is an important field for anyone looking to communicate data to an audience. A common application of data visualization to fields that work to effect social change is the infographic. Infographics are visual representations of data and are designed to tell a story so that laypeople can understand often complicated information.

There are a few things an infographic should be:

First, the source and data should be reliable and credible.

Second, the data presentation should be honest. It should not deliberately mislead the audience. In this article under the heading “Check the Data Presentation,” Fast Co. Design provides some examples of misleading presentations of data that are important to recognize and avoid.

Third, the infographic should be clear. If the presentation is visually overwhelming, people are not likely to engage with it.

Fourth, the presentation of the data should allow the audience to make connections to other figures and information. Consider the example of the Motorcycle Safety Guide published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This piece makes use not only of images as previously discuss in this section, but of infographics. On page 10, there is a list of all measures designed to enhance motorcycle safety. The infographic indicates that state helmet laws are the only scientifically proven preventive measure to be effective in promoting helmet use. How is providing the information in infographic form better, different, or more appealing than simply stating: “State helmet laws are the only scientifically proven way to promote helmet use”?

Infographics are especially useful when putting numbers into context; in other words, in communicating absolute versus relative data. I encourage you to watch David McCandless’ TED Talk: “The beauty of data visualization” before continuing and pay special attention to the 10:20-12:23 time, during which he describes how infographics can alter our perspective on data.

One of the infographics used by McCandless is what he calls the “Snake Oil Supplements?” infographic, which describes the evidence and popularity of certain health supplements. This infographic combines two data sets: 1) the web search popularity of each supplement, and 2) the scientific support of the supplements’ effectiveness in treating different conditions. What are some stories that could be taken from this interactive infographic?

Analysis Activity 5

Examine this infographic from the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. From an audience member’s perspective, address the following questions:

  1. What story is the infographic telling?

  2. Does the infographic used help to clarify complicated information?

  3. Is there a clear takeaway message associated with the infographic?

What, if anything, could be done to improve the quality and clarity of this infographic?  


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