Communication is the basis of human interaction because we use communication to create shared meaning. We negotiate this meaning through symbols – a word, icon, gesture, picture, object, etc.—that stand in for and represent a thing or experience. “Dog” is a symbol that represents adorable pets. When you see the symbol “dog,” you might picture your own dog, so that symbol has an additional layer of meaning for you. “Dog” also often represents pets as friends (or “humans’ best friend!”), so symbols can refer to literal objects or larger ideals and norms – it’s what makes communication both fascinating and, at times, complex.
Consider the following: your friend comes over to vent about a current relationship. “I am so annoyed!” they claim. “Charlie really needs to work on her communication skills. She never calls me back.”
At first, it may seem that Charlie’s lacking in communication by not returning phone calls. However, communication isn’t secluded to verbal feedback, and it still occurs in our nonverbal symbols, in silence, or in emojis . So, Charlie’s still communicating, just not a meaning that your friend is receiving happily.
As this example begins to demonstrate, communication (and, thus, public speaking) is complex, and below we highlight 3 important components of communication, beginning with communication as constitutive.
When we (your authors) were new public speakers, we often failed to take seriously the opportunity of speaking and communicating with others. We would commonly use words or phrases without investigating their impact on audiences or considering what they represented. That’s because we falsely viewed ourselves as vessels that transmitted information rather than active creators in our own and other’ worldview.
We now know, however, that communication is constitutive, meaning that communication creates meaning and, thus, reality (Nicotera, 2009). Rather than merely transmit pre-determined information, what you say matters and makes up our social world. Think back to the example with your friend and Charlie: Charlie’s communication was affecting your friend and their perception of Charlie. It affected your friend’s world and relationship with Charlie in real ways.
This principle is true of public speaking, too. The message that you create in your speech matters, because it both extends others’ information (like research) and constructs its own meaning. As communicators and public speakers, realizing that you are creating shared meaning may feel like added responsibility. And it is. It means that we are all responsible in thinking deeply about what we decide to speak about and how we decide to represent those ideas.
Power is thus a core consideration of communication because when we communicate, we are influencing others and selecting certain ways to represent our ideas. When you speak, you are elevating certain perspectives, and those often lead to the empowerment or disempowerment of people, places, things or ideas. Communicating is never neutral because meaning is always being negotiated. When you were a child, for example, a guardian may have looked at you angrily, and you knew to behave or there would be consequences. You are being nonverbally influenced and creating shared meaning with that guardian.
Communication is never neutral because meaning is always being negotiated.
Recent debates around school and sports’ mascots help demonstrate the role of power in communication. Maine, for example, unanimously banned Indigenous mascots in public schools after tribal communities expressed discomfort in the images (Hauser, 2019). For Indigenous communities, the verbal and visual images were disrespectful representations of their culture – it was communication that created problematic and stereotypical narratives that represented Indigenous cultures is disempowering ways.
Meaning is being constituted (or created) when you’re in the audience, too. Because public speaking is an experience in a particular context, audience members also contribute to the meaning being shared. Consider these
three scenarios (some of which you may have experienced). While someone is giving a formal speech:
- 3 front-row audience members are sleeping;
- 3 front-row audience members are providing positive, nonverbal feedback and taking notes;
- Someone is vacuuming loudly outside the room during the presentation.
These may sound familiar, and you may even experience these in class! Each scenario, however, does not communicate the same thing and all 3 will affect the public speaking experience – for the speaker and other audience members.
As humans, we are constantly communicating to make meaning with others. Viewing communication as constitutive highlights how these acts create our worldviews, not merely reflect them. In public speaking, then, our advocacies are not just recreating information, but our speeches are active contributors to the world we live in. Our worlds, though, are never universal, and communication is also always contextual.
Like we’ve mentioned, communication is humans trying to make meaning together. As you’ve experienced, though, that meaning is not received or understood the same all of the time. That’s because communication is contextual. It happens in a particular time and place.
Pretend, for example, that you want to break up with your partner. Communicating that desire over text message is a different context then a coffee shop or in a private apartment. As this example demonstrates, context refers to a specific time and place – the literal context. You may decide that a private apartment is more fitting because a coffee shop may lend itself to external noise, changing the vibe, and disrupting your serious talk.
For public speaking, the time and place are similarly key considerations because that context will inform what you say, why, and for how long. Ask yourself,
- Where will I be speaking? To whom?
- What is the purpose?
- When is it taking place?
- Am I delivering the message through a live or mediated channel?
The literal context can have substantial implications for what and how you’re able to communicate. For a public speaker, the place and space will dictate your movement, your presentation aids, and/or the length of your speech. To review these concepts, consider Chapter 3.
In addition to the literal context – the time and place – communication occurs within larger dialogues and contexts – historical and cultural. We’ll discuss communication as cultural below and Chapter two will dive deeper into analyzing your speaking context, but let’s work to understand the larger context here, too.
A communication act – like a speech or interpersonal exchange – occurs in a particular historical context. Have you ever been to a family function where you didn’t know that two family members were feuding? Perhaps you loudly commented on their behaviour jokingly, making the room silent and awkward. Unfortunately, you weren’t aware of the larger context.
In Canada, major conversations are occurring at municipal, provincial and federal level to address climate change. These conversations may be occurring in your communities, too. If you were discussing or speaking about climate change, being aware of these conversations would situate you to enter the larger context. Are you up-to-date on the scientific findings? Is your community susceptible to certain climate change impacts? What about other communities?
As a communicator and public speaker, being attuned and informed about the larger context is paramount, because it will direct you toward an advocacy. What’s relevant? What’s important to consider now? What references or examples are timely?
Communication occurs in a context – the literal time and place and the larger historical conversations. The final component of communication is closely connected with context, and below, we explore communication as cultural.
Finally, all communication is cultural.
First, let’s define culture. Culture refers to the collection of language, values, beliefs, knowledge, rituals, and attitudes shared amongst a group (“Culture and Communication,” 2002). Your college campus, for example, may have certain cultural elements (like a school song) that band students together toward similar beliefs and values.
Communication is cultural because cultures rely on symbols – the bedrock of communication – to determine the norms, expectations, and values within the group. This means two things:
- First, culture is created through the communication process. In other words, we use communication to negotiate (and create) our cultural values;
- Second, communication reflects the cultural values and norms of the people communicating. We can often glean what cultural values are present by looking at someone’s communication.
When we communicate, we are relying on the cultural norms that we’ve been taught and, by using those symbols, advocating for those ideals.
When you are advocating for an idea and communicating why that idea matters, it’s important not to assume that your cultural perspective or location is the best or only perspective (it’s contextual, remember?!). Instead, you must be reflexive about what norms you are advocating for and how you may be representing topics or ideas from or about other cultures. Reflexivity means to critically consider how our values, assumptions, actions, and communication affect others. From a communication perspective, reflexivity acknowledges that your intentions are secondary to the impact that your verbal and nonverbal behavior has on others and on the cultural realities that you create.
Think back to Maine’s legislation that prohibits public schools from using Indigenous mascots. In the U.S., free speech is an important cultural value, so many people argue that free speech should protect these mascots and images. For Indigenous communities, however, these images don’t accurately represent their cultural ideas and negatively stereotype. Because communication does more than just reflect reality (but creates it, ahem: is constitutive), there is power in the information that’s portrayed to others. In this case, we should reflexively ask: Are the images representing our or other cultures ethically? Are we communicating in a way that disempowers others?
These questions are important because communication affects our perceptions of other cultures and cultural norms. We not only learn our own cultural values through communication, we also learn about other cultures through communication, in positive and negative ways. If you grew up in New Westminster, you might have been told negative stories about Surrey. This likely impacted your perception of Surrey and even the people who live there.
This may seem like a silly example, but it demonstrates how communication is the bedrock of cultural meaning – both our own and others.
Communication, as a process of creating shared meaning, is constituted (creating the worlds in which we live), contextual (occurs in a time and place), and cultural (shared rituals, norms, values). These three characteristics are true of all communication – interpersonal, organizational, intercultural, and digital, to name a few.
As public speakers, these components guide our decisions on what information to advocate for and to whom. They ask us to consider, what’s at stake in the perspective that I’m introducing? How will it influence my audience and my community? How am I entering a relevant conversation? What world views am I supporting and creating?
Public speaking is a privilege – not everyone, every day is given an audience of people willing to listen to their ideas. So it’s important, it matters, and it’s meaningful.
So far, we’ve discussed public speaking as a form of advocacy and identified some core communication principles to keep in mind. There is one additional (albeit unwelcome) component that defines many speakers’ experience with public speaking: apprehension. In the final major section of this chapter, we walk through communication apprehension.