The strange death of public speaking

Listening to a great speaker is inspiring, affecting, educating and liberating. A fortunate few of us could recall, with fondness, a direct experience—the classes of an exceptional school teacher, the lectures of a gifted academic, a remarkable wedding speech or a poignant eulogy. More likely, we come across great speakers indirectly—on our televisions, digital platforms and social media feeds. Such encounters are infrequent. But when they occur, they are always invigorating—the incisive and exacting remarks of a pundit, or that rare but brave and perspicacious address from a political leader.

Those with an understanding of public speaking can discern the hallmarks of an excellent orator—they are informed, articulate, engaging and edifying. They appeal to the audience’s logic and emotion. Their key points are supported by facts and evidence. They consider the broader context of issues and they address—rather than disregard—the counter-argument. Their case is structured and flows naturally, enabling their listeners to become passengers on the journey. They present with confidence and, when needed, a touch of theatrical flair.

The ability for individuals to inform, reason, persuade and debate are essential for the healthy functioning of liberal democratic societies.

Rather than dismissing complexity, they seek to convey it in a succinct and intelligible manner. They speak simply, but not in a condescending way which disrespects the intelligence of their audience. They employ literary devices—such as repetition and alliteration—and speaking techniques—such as pauses and variations in cadence—to ensure their words are penetrating, mellifluous and memorable. They offer something new to their audience, persuade them to see an issue in a different light, and ignite their critical thinking. They seek to educate rather than self-aggrandise. And through all this, they cultivate trust and confidence.

The principles of oratory have their roots in Ancient Greece and the teachings of Aristotle. Since that time, public speaking has been an essential form of communication. The ability for individuals to inform, reason, persuade and debate are essential for the healthy functioning of liberal democratic societies.

Public speaking is something that almost all of us will do at some point in our lives—in personal and professional contexts; in informal and formal settings; in front of small and large audiences. A lucky few are naturally gifted orators. But most speakers who are considered either ‘great’ or ‘accomplished’ in wider circles have become so through exposure to the trade. Like the mastery of any craft, proficiency is contingent on practice.

Alas, it is rare today to encounter a truly remarkable public speaker in our immediate networks. Regrettably, public speaking has become somewhat of a lost art. Perhaps we are witnessing its slow death.

The essential ingredients of public speaking—time to prepare, time to reflect and time to practise—are not in abundance, particularly in the fast-paced and mass information-driven modern-day workplace. An endless cycle of meetings, workshops and other forms of ‘stakeholder engagement’ has seen the PowerPoint presentation evolve within, and become a staple of the corporate ecosystem. Admittedly, PowerPoint has its merits. Content can be quickly amended and readily tailored for different purposes. The presenter does not have to undertake the level of preparation commensurate with other forms of public speaking. And PowerPoint allows the speaker to move seamlessly between a casual and formal presentation style, depending on the occasion and upon gauging the atmosphere of the audience.

An over-reliance on PowerPoint, however, has seen it increasingly abused. As a visual communication medium, PowerPoint was intended as a crutch to support the speaker—a tool to display images, graphs, maps and the like. In many cases, it has now become a presenter’s life support system—an entanglement of complex detail, jargon and motherhood statements which, pistoning away together, supply the speaker’s oxygen. Without it, they would suffocate. For the audience, our attention is inverted—away from the speaker and onto to slides as we furiously endeavour to decipher the enigma before us. It is not without dystopian irony that the presenter has become the aid, and the PowerPoint the presenter.

In an age of mass communication, widening polarised opinion and increasingly contested views, public speaking which informs, reasons, persuades and debates needs to be cultivated.

The preferential and habitual use of PowerPoint means that many people have lost sight of, or do not recognise, the qualities of great public speaking. We are too infrequently exposed to it, and as such, have blindly lowered our standards. Ironically, in our endeavour to find ways to cope with the pressures of the corporate environment—such as the ready adoption of PowerPoint—we have inevitably lost some of those core public speaking skills which would make us more effective and persuasive communicators in that very environment. Sadly, the corporate world is doing little to turn the tide. Where opportunities exist for public speaking and presentation, most people immediately turn, automaton-like, to the PowerPoint platform, aping the behaviour of their senior leaders. Lamentably, an insouciant attitude has developed towards the value of oratory within the workplace. There appears to be little desire to nurture the skills of public speaking within the workforce—either through training, practice or leading by example.

In an age of mass communication, widening polarised opinion and increasingly contested views, public speaking which informs, reasons, persuades and debates needs to be cultivated. It matters as much in the corporate world as it does in the public and media discourse—both are intrinsically interconnected. Speaking on freedom of speech, the author, journalist, and political commentator Douglas Murray noted, “when the speech goes wrong, the ideas go wrong, and when the ideas go wrong, the politics goes wrong.”[1] If we fail to nurture the skills for public speaking in the first instance, we will certainly get it all very wrong.

[1] Murray, D., ‘Dangerous Words 250’, Conference, Stockholm, 1 October 2016,

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