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At the behest of a few colleagues, I have been working on establishing a corporate Toastmasters club at my workplace for the last few months.

Despite the increasing prevalence of social media and telecommuting as a work style option, as human beings we obviously can’t do without face-to-face unmediated communications. While video conferencing certainly helps to bridge the gap somewhat, it still isn’t the same as being together in a room. Amy Slagell notes that “there remains a significant role for public speaking as a means for sharing ideas and motivating others.” [1] New communication channels such as Youtube have allowed for mediated public speeches that can reach a larger and broader audience (though at the same time, introducing new challenges and complications).

Immediate feedback during public speaking, largely in the form of nonverbal cues can help the speaker gauge how well the audience is listening and resonating with the message being communicated. Such real-time feedback is invaluable and is lost in mediated forms of communication. This is to say that the audience is not passive as the speaker delivers the speech, but individually, as a group and in their interaction with the speaker, they are active in creating meaning. Slagell writes:

Listeners bring their own experiences, languages, expectations, and ways of making meaning into the public speaking interaction. The meanings taken away from a public-speaking presentation depend on the audience member’s work in creating them. The more researchers investigate the ways people learn, the more it becomes clear that complex biological and social processes are at work as audience members construct their own meanings in communication contexts. Public communication is a participatory process; a speaker cannot make himself or herself understood without the willing participation of the listener in the process. The complexities of the mental landscapes of audience members—individually and as groups—is part of what makes public speaking a creative challenge that is never fully mastered. [2]

It is this “creative challenge that is never fully mastered” and my desire to connect with an audience that inspired me to join Toastmasters. To be able to look into the face of the Other (to speak in Levinasian language) and make a genuine connection is an intimate and rewarding experience.

With so many avenues for gathering information and for communicating ideas open to the citizens of the 21st century, the central questions for an aspiring speaker must be “What is the added value of using public speaking as the means of communication for a particular message?

The answer, of course, is the presence of the speaker. There is high demand for the opportunity to experience firsthand the ideas, voice, facial expressions, gestures, energy, and, in a sense, the character of a speaker through the public-speaking context. The physical presence of a speaker conveys a level of attention of the speaker for that particular audience, which is a gift every bit as desired as is the attention that audience is offering to the speaker. The possibility of an authentic connection continues to bring audiences together. [3]

Endnotes

  1. Amy Slagell, “Public Speaking”, p. 194, in 21st century communication: a reference handbook (ed. by William F. Eadie, SAGE Publications, 2009).
  2. Slagell, ibid., p. 197.
  3. ibid., p. 201.
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