The Difference Between Conversation and Public Speaking

Man smiling while having conversation with friend
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Public speaking and conversation have long been linked in the American public consciousness. Nineteenth century U.S. Congressman James Winans introduced the idea that public speaking is a form of extended conversation. Winans argued that an effective speech connects with the audience on a personal level. In fact, a public speech can operate something like a conversation between the speaker and the audience -- but conversation happens informally and requires little to no advanced planning or preparation. Public speakers must abide by many more rules and guidelines.

1 Speaker and Audience

In a public speech -- unlike a conversation -- there is a clear distinction between the speaker and the audience. The speaker stands at the front of a room, outside space or auditorium. She often stands or sits above the audience on an elevated stage. Sometimes she uses a microphone and a podium to communicate her message. The format affords an air of legitimacy or even power to the speaker; the speaker, not the audience, decides what content to include.

2 Structure and Rules

Many speeches follow specific structures and rules. Time limits are common. Sometimes a question-and-answer session follows the formal speech to afford the audience a chance to participate. A speech must often cover a specific topic or topics. It may also need to convey a certain sensibility or emotion, such as urgency or inspiration. While people may plan important conversations in advance, this is not a requirement as it generally is for public speech. The speaker must also think through likely questions so he can answer them during the speech or the question-and-answer session.

3 Formalities and Conventions

While slang and cursing may be acceptable in some informal social conversations, public speaking usually requires more formalities. This means adopting a more formal or professional tone or voice. While cursing and slang may be acceptable before certain niche audiences, more formal speech is the norm in most public speaking. A speech may include a topic very important to the speaker, but she must keep expressions of emotion in check so as not to alienate the audience. This may not mean the complete suppression of emotion. A practiced public speaker with an ear for audience response may determine how to use emotion in an appropriate and effective way.

4 Polished Speaking

In public speaking, more than in conversation, the speaker must practice ways of getting through to the audience. This means minimizing or eliminating verbal tics like "um" or "you know" that could divert audience attention from the content of the speech. The speaker must also project her voice outwardly and enunciate words clearly so he can be heard.

Christina Lee began writing in 2004. Her co-authored essay is included in the edited volume, "Discipline and Punishment in Global Affairs." Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master of Arts in global affairs from American University and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Penn State University.