Public speaking as a form of advocacy can be traced through the history of oral communication. Public speaking, or “rhetoric” as it was originally called, has long been considered a method in Western culture of building community, facilitating self-governance, sharing important ideas, and creating policies. In fact, these are the reasons the ancient Athenian Greeks emphasized that all citizens should be educated in rhetoric: so that they could take part in civil society. Rhetoric was a means to discuss and advocate civically with other citizens and community members.
Public speaking is still seen as a key form of civic engagement. Being a good civil servant means listening to information that’s relevant to your community/communities and using public outlets—voting, petitioning, or speaking— to participate in democracy. Public speaking becomes a necessary outlet to advocate for issues within and for your community – it’s a way to become civically engaged.
Public speaking can and should remain invested in advocacy, but “advocacy” can sound slightly intimidating.
To clarify, think about advocacy as one or more of the following components:
- Advocacy is the promotion of an idea, cause, concept, or information
- Advocacy includes actions toward a specific goal
- Advocacy finds solutions to current problems
To advocate is to say “this idea matters” and “I invite each of us to think more deeply about this information.” This could happen by discussing an idea that you believe a community needs to hear or by overtly asking audiences to change their mind about a controversial topic. When you make a selection to provide a perspective, you are actively supporting (or advocating for) that perspective. Of all the arguments, topics, or insights in the world, you have selected one – you’ve selected an advocacy.
You may be wondering, “if advocacy means the promotion of a cause that affects communities, how do I figure out a cause I find worthy to speak about?”
Believe us, you’ve done this before.
When is the last time you advocated for a certain perspective? You may have shared an article online that suggested boycotting a musical artist. Perhaps you backed your sister up in an argument with your parents about curfews. You may be thinking about arguing with a friend to boycott fast food chains or asking an important question through social media. These are forms of advocacy. You become passionate about these topics and they motivate your engagement around these issues.
Public speaking asks that you expand those moments beyond interpersonal or social media exchanges to include a broader audience where you’re the designated speaker.
You might, for example, be asked to represent a student organization on campus. You would be responsible for advocating on behalf of that group – a responsibility that can be exhilarating and meaningful. You care about the organization –its mission, ideas, and people in it—so you want to successfully advocate for the group’s ideas.
When we advocate, we are balancing our own individual interests with the interests or goals of a larger community or group. We can sometimes over-rely on the first half: our own interests, and forget about the latter: the interests of the larger community. Oftentimes, what we advocate for or about can impact others – both directly (like your student organization) and indirectly (like language choices that are used).
Therefore, advocating for ideas through public speaking has personal and social functions. Public speaking as advocacy will guide our approach through this book, and we encourage you to begin considering your areas of advocacy. There is a lot at stake when we advocate, so we must strive to be ethical communicators.