The Public Speaking System, Part 6: Perception

Remember the debate over that dress back in 2015? Was it white and gold? Or was it blue and black? It seemed people everywhere were arguing about which colors they saw. And both sides seemed equally convinced they were right. In response to the great dress debate, Dr. Duje Tadin, associate professor for brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, said “This clearly has to do with individual differences in how we perceive the world . . . There’s something about this particular image that just captures those differences in a remarkable way.”

More recently there was the debate over an audio clip in which some people heard “Yanny” and others heard “Laurel.” Popular debates like these serve to remind us that human communication is always filtered through our individual perceptions. We have differing views of what is “true” or “right” or “good.” And even if we can agree on what those mean, we often communicate them differently.

Perception is the sixth and final part of the public speaking system that we’ve been discussing recently. These six parts—context, people, message, symbols, channel, and perception—are all interdependent and bound by relationship. When one of these changes, the rest of the system changes. And when we remember that different perceptions are always at play, we can become communicators with more awareness and sensitivity.


In a study which asked 134,000 participants to name a variety of colors, the highest level of agreement for any one color was 85%.  So to assume 100% agreement on things is probably idealistic. It can be a huge step just for us to begin the presentation process with the awareness that different people have different perceptions of the same topic or event or issue. This gets at something we call audience analysis, which is studying the audience for the purpose of crafting a message specifically for them. Too many speakers mistakenly assume everyone generally shares their perceptions. It’s important to get outside of this mindset, so that you can craft a speech knowing there will be diverse opinions, experiences, attitudes, and passions in the audience to which you are speaking.


This awareness should then lead you to become a more sensitive communicator. Remember that you are viewing the presentation through your own lens and filters. And each member of the audience will do that as well. When you remember that perceptions are always part of communication, you can understand how different perceptions might view the parts of the system. A sensitive communicator asks questions like:

  • How might others view the context of the speaking environment?
  • What have I assumed based on my own perceptions?
  • Could others perceive me differently than I perceive myself?
  • What might my message sound like to someone who doesn’t share my same views or background?
  • How might another person get this same message across in a totally different way?
  • Have I used any words or examples that might be offensive to someone?
  • How might my audience perceive the types of media I’m using in my presentation?

These types of questions remind us that just like we all see the world through our own filters, we also see our presentations through our own specific filters. I like the way author, consultant, and speaker Gustavo Razzetti puts it. “Being right is a paradox; it’s built on a wrong assumption: that things are objective. Reality is a by-product of our perception. We all watch the same world but observe different things. That’s the magic of being human — we are continually being challenged by others’ viewpoints.” That’s also the magic of being a public speaker. You get to share your perspective with others even as you are challenged by the viewpoints of your audience.

People who saw different colors in the dress or heard “Yanny” or “Laurel” all thought their perception was the accurate one. And while scientists gave theories of why we saw and heard different things, in the end it didn’t really matter. Because people will see what they see and hear what they hear, and we will all go on creating meaning and connecting as we share our perspectives. We just need to be aware of that and sensitive to it as we communicate.

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