A line illustration on a red background of a speaker at a podium.

Public Speaking Tips from a Communication Prof

Need to make a presentation at work? Give a toast or deliver a eulogy? Jodi Cohen tells you how

When it comes to knowing how to talk in front of a crowd—well, Jodi Cohen could give a speech about it. A senior lecturer in the Department of Communication, Cohen has been teaching the art and science of public speaking for more than three decades. Prior to coming to Cornell she was on the faculty at Ithaca College, where she still holds emerita status. On the Hill, her oral communication course—COMM 2010, which is mandatory for majors and satisfies a CALS distribution requirement—attracts more than 300 students each year.

Let’s get straight to the point! What are the essentials of good public speaking?

Number one: have something to say and know what you’re talking about. Second, organize your ideas around a thesis; we’ve all been told that since eighth grade, but most people don’t do it. Third, adapt your ideas, structure, and delivery to the context; the immediacy of face-to-face talk makes it different from writing. The fourth principle is an engaging delivery: I advocate speaking extemporaneously, from an outline. If you’ve read it or memorized it, you’re often not going to engage your audience.

Prof. Jodi Cohen standing in a hallway
Senior lecturer Jodi Cohen, seen here in CALS’ communication department on the fourth floor of Mann Library, wants speakers to jettison the script and interact with the audience. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

What are the most common mistakes people make?

They’re not organized—that’s number one. And two, they make it about themselves—but it’s about the audience. Who are they? What are they interested in? Why are they sitting in front of you? What do they need to know? What are they expecting? Another mistake is that speakers put everything on PowerPoint. That’s not effective communication, because—again—you need to engage with your audience. You want to have eye contact, interact, be spontaneous, and be willing to adjust in the moment rather than run through information on slides. Why do I need to go to a lecture hall and listen while you flip through slides and read them out loud?

So are you saying, “Don’t stick to a script”? A lot of people would find that scary.

It’s very scary. And I am saying that. Now, I want to be clear that there are exceptions to speaking from an outline; obviously, if you’re the president of the United States, you can’t go off message. But I tell my students never to write out a speech like an essay; that’s not conducive to how people listen. Most of us will never be faced with an audience of hundreds or thousands, but with smaller groups where we should connect in the moment. In most situations, it’s best to organize your ideas around a point and develop the outline as you practice speaking from it. Leave room for a little spontaneity.

I tell my students never to write out a speech like an essay; that’s not conducive to how people listen.

Is repeating points in a speech helpful or boring?

We use repetition when we speak, even in casual conversation. It helps us follow and remember ideas. Effective speakers preview the points they’re going to be covering; they’ll say, “My first point will illustrate the significance of the problem and my second will address two popular solutions.” They also use transitions that review one point and move into the next. Depending on how long and complicated the speech is, they may stop several times and review everything they’ve covered—what’s called an internal summary. And when you conclude, you should review again, because your listeners can’t go back and reread.

Is brevity really the soul of wit? Should you keep it short as possible?

Yes, absolutely. You do need some repetition, because people aren’t always listening. But I always say, “Say more about less.” For example, a student who’s assigned to give a five-minute talk in my class might suggest a topic like the history of feminism. And I’d say, “You need an intro, a conclusion, and a summary, so you’re going to have about three minutes of content. Talk about the latest changes in the feminist movement; the history from day one is too much.”

Jodi Cohen (at left) standing while teaching a seminar to students seated around a table.
Cohen (at left) in class. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Let’s talk about some common situations. How do you give a good wedding toast?

This is a perfect case where eye contact and extemporaneous delivery are essential, because of the personal and emotional content. You can have notecards, but I don’t think you should memorize your toast—and when you’re saying, “I love you all, it’s so good to be gathered here,” you should be looking at your audience, not reading something or rolling your eyes as you recall your next line. But I think the biggest mistake people make in wedding toasts is including private jokes. I hear a lot of those kinds of toasts, and half the audience doesn’t get it. It needs to be inclusive of all.

I think the biggest mistake people make in wedding toasts is including private jokes. I hear a lot of those kinds of toasts, and half the audience doesn’t get it.

How about a eulogy?

Here you have a dual purpose: you want to praise, honor, and remember the person who has passed, but at the at the same time, you need to engage your audience in their own grief. When I was writing and rewriting the eulogy for my father, at first it was all about how great he was, how much I missed him, and what he gave us as kids. And it dawned on me that my audience was missing him—so I focused a lot of it on how they made his life good. And I think it worked well, because I spoke to their grief and their needs.

Any specific tips for making presentations via Zoom?

People tend to write everything out, but then you don’t have any eye contact and you’re just reading from the screen. When you look in the camera it’s the equivalent of direct eye contact—but in real life we don’t stare at people; we look around. So, when you’re speaking online, I suggest having a notecard on your desk so you can look down and back into the camera and around at faces on the screen as well. It’s much more natural.

You’ve said that you’re not a fan of TED Talks. How come?

They’ve become formulaic and not really well structured beyond storytelling; I think what bothers me is when they’re used as a model for excellent speaking that we should imitate. I’ve read some TED Talk prep sheets, and they tend to push for three points—as though all talks should have three. I don’t get that at all. What if you only have two? What if there are four? And the delivery is especially formulaic; they plan gestures and movements at certain times, which to me crosses over into performance.

Many people will only rarely give a public speech. Can these lessons make you a better communicator overall, like at a cocktail party?

Absolutely, in every situation. These principles—knowing what you’re talking about, having something to say, organized around a point, adapting to your audience—are essential to effective communication.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University

Published October 13, 2021


Comments

  1. Ken Plattner, Class of 1996

    Did you take the reins over this class from Professor Brian Earle?

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other posts You may like