Vincent Ferraro and Kathryn C. Palmer
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA 01075
Speaking and Arguing: The Rhetoric of Peace and War


One should not underestimate the importance of delivery.   After all, speaking is what makes a speech distinctive from other forms of communication.   Audiences believe that nonverbal impressions are more reliable indicators of whether a speaker is being honest (on their assumption that actions are harder to falsify than words).  To appreciate more fully the importance of delivery, one should merely think about how often one assesses others on the basis of how they look or behave.  This assessment of others is, one hopes, always conditional--we should base a final assessment of others on more substantive matters.  Nonetheless, the process of assessment on non-verbal cues is something we all do. 

Oral communication is also significantly richer than the written language because of delivery.  Speakers can use more than words to convey meaning.   Think about the following examples from Christina Stuart:

I've just lost my job.      Really?   (horror)
You need to get get a new hair style.    Really?  (annoyance)
Your work is quite good.     Really?  (pleasure)
We'll finish on time.     Really?  (disbelief)
I'm not looking forward to meeting him.     Really (sarcasm)

One can develop such differences in meaning in writing, but the typical way we develop meaning from the written word is to actually hear the words spoken as we read--the writer expects us to insert the appropriate inflections because the writer knows that we will.  One cannot truly understand the meanings of the word "really" in the preceding sentences without hearing them.  Developing a repertoire of similar techniques to convey meaning is the reason one talks about delivery.  This aspect of delivery is developed more fully in the section on the differences between oral and written communication.

Do not, however, assume that there is a "formula" for effective delivery.  The most effective speakers are ones that use their natural gestures and idiosyncracies to their best advantage.  Trying to mimic the delivery of others is self-defeating:  audiences will detect the unnaturalness of a borrowed technique and assume that the speaker is not being sincere.  Delivery is a highly personal matter:  there is no standard form of delivery and everyone should tailor his or her speech to personal strengths and weaknesses.  

There are, however, some aspects of delivery that are common to all good speakers.

One must speak clearly.  Words must be carefully enunciated so that the audience can understand what is being said.  One can practice using enunciation exercises. One of the greatest errors made by speakers is speaking so fast that they lose the ability to enunciate properly.  Varying the rate at which the words are spoken is an effective technique, but, as a rule of thumb, slow is better than fast.   Generally, it is good to speed up the rate of speaking toward the end of the speech.  By then, the audience will have worked out the quirks in your enunciation and one often seeks to create a rush at the end of the speech.

One must speak loudly enough.  Again, if the audience cannot hear the speaker, then all is lost. Regulating the volume of one's voice is important.  Do not deliver the speech in a monotone.  Variations in volume can communicate a great deal of meaning.  Think about what a whisper conveys.  In contrast, think of a loud shout.  Volume and rate of speech are the functional equivalents of italicized or bolded words in a written text.

One must make eye contact.  This aspect of delivery is critically important although many speakers fail to make eye contact.  In North American culture, not making eye contact is refusing to engage the audience. Other cultures have different attitudes about eye contact and one should be sensitive to these differences.  The best way to maintain eye contact is by looking directly at a single member of the audience for two or three seconds (no longer than that, or the person will think that you are staring), and then moving on to look at someone else.  Try not to be predictable in your eye movements: moving your eyes in the pattern of an "M" or "W" and then switching over to an "X" pattern is a good way of appearing random in your eye movements. Maintaining eye contact is one way of remembering to engage the audience. The audience will appreciate the fact that you are taking an interest in each of them and you will not forget that you are speaking to individuals and not a monolithic crowd.

In casual conversation, eye contact can convey a multitude of messages: by averting one's eyes in a conversation one signals that he or she wishes to continue speaking; looking directly at someone and not speaking is a clear signal that one wishes the other to speak; looking away while someone is talking signals disinterest in the words being immediately spoken. 

Other aspects of delivery are more flexible, and one needs to think about these aspects in relation to personal style and comfort.

The use of space.  North Americans tend to be more defensive about space than members of some other cultures, so it is important to remember where you are when you give a speech.  Typically, there is a podium for the speaker which separates the speaker from the audience.  The purpose of the podium is clear: the speaker's presence is distinctive. A podium also conveys the authority of the speaker. 

Becuase a podium separates speaker and audience, speakers are well advised to move to the side or in front of the podium when they wish to make a point of particular importance.  The speaker thereby establishes closer intimacy with the audience. Under certain rare circumstances, it might also be appropriate for the speaker to join the audience.  Such use of space works well when an audience is scattered around a room.   But there is usually too much movement in such an action and the audience will find itself wondering where the speaker will next move rather than listening to his or her words.

Standing is always better than sitting.  Sitting, implying a more informal mode of discussion, is appropriate for a variety of circumstances.  But speech-making is a formal activity. Standing, however, isolates an speaker and contributes to anxiety about public speaking.  The section on anxiety suggests ways of coping.

Presence.  A speaker needs to project authority over the subject matter, not over the audience.  In a perfect world, such authority would be determined merely by the integrity of the speaker's argument.  We do not, however, live in a perfect world and it is a mistake to delude oneself that only one's ideas matter, particularly when one is speaking to a audience of strangers. Strangers have very little to go on initially in determining whether to pay attention to a speaker.

There are some basic rules of presence, most of which our parents told us about.  First, wear your favorite formal clothes.  Never wear anything with which you feel less than comfortable, and wear something that suggests care and attention. Do not wear anything that will divert the audience's attention or set you apart further from the audience.

Second, always stand up straight. One should not be stiff, but slouching suggests a laziness that could possibly affect the audience's recpetion of your argument.   The podium is not a posture prop; the podium's purpose is symbolic.

Third, smile before you say your first word.  Even if your subject matter is deadly serious and horrific, a smile will establish a rapport with your audience that can be built upon.  Actually, one should think of something amusing as one walks to the podium so that the smile is genuine and not forced.

Fourth, disguise your nervousness.  Every speaker is nervous.  But if your nervousness is apt to manifest itself in shaking hands, then grab hold to the sides of the podium.  If you voice quavers, then speak a little more loudly and deeply.  The signs of nervousness will go away after the first minute or two as the presentation of your argument takes control of your mind and body.

Gestures.  The human body is capable of about 700,000 different gestures that can be used to communicate meaning.  Some researchers have identified "twenty-three separate and distinct eyebrow positions that communicate different meanings" (McCroskey, 1997, p. 143).  Gestures are the single greatest asset of a speaker, but they must be used sparingly and judiciously or else they overwhelm the content of the speech.

One ought to take notice of the gestures of people in normal conversation, and correlate those gestures with the words spoken.  The hands and arms are perhaps the most obvious signalers of meaning.  One should avoid making the same hand gestures over and over again; monotony breeds distraction.  The gestures should be unanticipated and unrehearsed, but in synchrony with the meaning of the words spoken.

The essential point to remember is that delivery must accentuate naturalness.  One must be comfortable in delivering a speech.  By and large, we all have integrated our speaking with non-verbal gestures fairly well.  Trust your own instincts on delivery and do only what you find consistent with your personality.