The Public Speaking System, Part 2: People

Think for a moment about how you communicate differently depending on whom you are with. You probably talk one way to your spouse, another way to your boss, and another way to your closest friends. It’s not just that you are more comfortable with some people than others, it’s that your relationships operate in different cultures and environments—in different systems. Those different systems dictate what you talk about and even the language you use. 

We've been talking about the public speaking system. On Monday, we discussed how this system is make up of 6 parts that all work and move together. The first part we covered was context—the where and why people are gathered. If you missed it, you can read about that here. Today, we are moving on to the second part of the system: the people who participate. For communication to function properly, there has to be both a sender and receiver. In the case of public speaking, it’s the speaker and the audience.

Thin Slicing

We first need to understand how quickly and powerfully the impressions we make can affect our presentations. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” right? Well, researchers Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal tested this. They wanted to see how accurately students could evaluate teachers based on “thin slices” of information. They found that “very brief (10-second and even 2-second) clips of dynamic silent video clips provided sufficient information . . . to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness in high correlation with students’ final course ratings of their instructors.” 

So not only do we form quick first impressions of people, we form quick, lasting impressions of people. This means that the interaction that happens between the speaker and his audience in the first few seconds will likely last throughout the presentation. Presenters must be aware that these thin slices have the power to positively or negatively shape how the rest of the system functions.


But what happens after you get through those first few moments? Hopefully you build on and re-evaluate those thin slices using feedback. Feedback refers to the messages that the audience sends to the speaker to let him know how his message is coming across. It might be a furrowed brow, a smile, or a nod of the head. The audience may not be talking, but they are communicating. As a speaker, you should never just plow through your message without adapting to the feedback your audience is giving you. Watch their faces for signs of interest or disinterest and adjust accordingly. Pause longer if they are still laughing. Clarify a point if they look confused. If they perk up and seem to relate to a story you tell, you might plan to reference it later in the speech again even though you hadn’t originally planned to. 

The interaction between the speaker and the audience keeps the message (another part of the system) fluid. It allows it to adapt for that group of people. We especially see how the system works when we change the medium through which a presentation is given. A live presentation feels different from a recorded one which feels different from a video conference. Why? Because the relationship between the speaker and the audience changes. When feedback is limited or removed, and that affects the rest of the system. And the context, which we talked about previously, influences the amount of feedback a speaker may receive. One interesting study showed that feedback during political campaign speeches was much more frequent and differed in type than feedback given during inauguration speeches. You may see this as you speak. You might give a presentation at one organization and be met with warm and expressive feedback. You might give the same presentation at another organization and get very little feedback. What changed? The people in the system. 

As you move throughout your day, pay attention to how your communication is influenced and changed by and for the people around you. On Friday, we’ll look at the next part of the system, the message. It’s probably the part you think of first, the actual words you say. But we sometimes forget how the message is affected by the rest of the system. 

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