The Public Speaking System, Part 4: Symbols

A traffic sign. An emoji. A smile. A word. We encounter thousands of symbols every day. But what are symbols? Ready to get technical? They are things that stand for other things. And they are an important part of human communication.

In our last few blogs posts, we have been covering the public speaking system and its 6 parts: context, people, message, symbols, channel, and perceptions. Today, we’ll be discussing symbols. From the words that speakers choose to use, to the visuals that accompany their presentations, symbols are what we use to help others understand our ideas. Take a look at the Ross Communication Model below. You’ll find symbols in the green box.

Symbols are what communicators use to help their audience members reconstruct ideas. In other words, when used effectively, symbols provide a way to efficiently send a clear message. A laughing emoji tells someone, “I think this is funny.” The symbol of a heart expresses love. A red light tells us to stop.

What Are Symbols?

Symbols have been part of the human communicative experience for a very long time. Professor and evolutionary biologist Darren Cunoe says, “Symbols are part of the universal human experience, and undoubtedly their use is hardwired into our brains.” For more information on how humans use symbols, watch his quick, educational video.

How Do We Use Them?

Once we understand how important symbols are to human communication, we can start to adapt them for use specifically in public speaking settings. In public speaking, we use words and pictures and forms of nonverbal communication (like postures and facial expressions) to send messages. Studies have shown that students perform 121% better when instructional presentations contain varied symbols, both graphics and text. Choose the right symbols, and your audience will come away from your presentation with a clear understanding of what you were trying to communicate. Choose the wrong ones, and they will be confused and possibly frustrated.

As you prepare your presentation, ask yourself, does this picture I’m showing the audience send a clear message? Does this word accurately express what I’m trying to say? Does my stance communicate what I want it to? Is there an image I can use to better get my point across? How can I edit my presentation to choose symbols that will resonate and clearly communicate with my specific audience?

As you become aware of how you use symbols when you present, you should edit your first words and ideas, gradually choosing symbols that are more concise and clear for the benefit of your audience. Conduct your own symbol audit of your presentation, looking for the best message paths.

If you need help creating powerful images and graphics for your presentation, check out the award-winning presentation design services of Ethos3. And if you are ready to master the art of public speaking, register now for our online presentation skills course at

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