Approaches

14 Online Public Speaking

Learning Objectives

  • Explore digital public speaking as an emerging medium
  • Define synchronous and asynchronous communication
  • Strategize best practices for online speaking

Traditionally, public speaking has been understood as a face-to-face exchange between a designated speaker and an audience. Like we discussed in Chapter 1, this understanding of public speaking has a 2500-year history. In fact, when you imagine a public speaker, you likely picture a person standing on a stage with a podium and speaking in front of a live audience.

However, new media and digital technologies have begun expanding both our access to public speakers and our platforms to speak and reach new audiences. YouTube—a global video sharing service—has more than 1.8 billion monthly users (Gilbert, 2018), and these are just people who log-in! If you’re like us, you’ve likely watched hours of content published on YouTube, from instructional videos to political commentary. You may even access videos on Instagram Live or Facebook. With access to these platforms, speakers are now able to broadcast their insights and advocacies to a global audience.

Businesses, too, have begun using online public speaking. Webinars, video conferences, and digital speakers have permeated professional industries, and it’s becoming increasingly important to consider best practices for creating and being in the audience for online public speeches.

Like any approach toward public speaking, online public speaking offers a variety of opportunities and constraints. Below, we outline what digital public speaking is and how to prepare to speak online.

Online Public Speaking

Online public speaking – also knowns as digital oratory—is a “thesis-driven, vocal, embodied public address that is housed within (online) new media platforms” (Lind, 2012, p. 164). Like all public speeches, an online speech should be well-prepared, organized, well-reasoned, and well-rehearsed. As you think through an online speech, purpose, synchronicity, and the audience all play key roles.

Purpose

Online speaking opportunities are not created equally, and each speech will have different goals—informing, persuading, or entertaining. Remember that digital oratory requires a thesis statement, and the purpose will dictate how you craft the information that you’re going to present. With ready access to video technology that can be transmitted through our phones, it can be tempting to log-in and let our followers into our lives through a stream-of-consciousness vlog, but that’s not the type of digital oratory that constitutes prepared public speaking. Instead, it’s important to begin by asking: what’s my purpose? What’s my thesis? Then, organize your speech around the answer.

For example, you might be participating—or leading—a “webinar,” which is a meeting or presentation over the Internet using a tool such as Blackboard Collaborate, Citrix, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, or one of many other web conferencing tools. You could also record an instructional video that details how to navigate a new piece of technology. Alternatively, you may be asked to send a digital response that reviews a policy change or advocacy. Each speech will have a different purpose and, in turn, different expectations on what you should include. Once you’ve identified the goal, use earlier chapters to begin crafting content.

Synchronicity

Like we mentioned, traditional public speaking occurs in face-to-face contexts. If you’re presenting a speech live, you’re speaking synchronously, meaning your audience is experiencing it in real-time. Some online public speeches occur synchronously. If you’re speaking to a non-profit organization about a local food pantry project through Skype and the members of the organization are tuning in live to watch and hear your presentation, the speech is synchronous.

In synchronous online speaking, many of the same face-to-face speaking principles apply. Like we’ve discussed, live presentations are ephemeral, meaning they happen once. In synchronous online speaking – unless it’s being recorded – you have one chance to create a clear message, so it’s imperative that your content and information are crafted for clear understanding.

Alternatively, you may speak asynchronously, meaning that the speech may be recorded and watched at a different time. YouTube, for example, houses many asynchronous videos, allowing audiences to tune in and watch when their schedule allows it. With an asynchronous video, speakers may have additional time to record, watch, and re-do if necessary. Similarly, audiences also have the ability to re-watch your presentation or pause the speech, if needed.

Each option provides different opportunities and constraints.

In synchronous speaking, you may be more comfortable in adopting and applying face-to-face public speaking strategies, including integrating live audience feedback. It’s common in synchronous online speaking for audiences to post questions or provide live feedback, allowing you to adjust your content and fill in gaps. If there is a technological mishap, however, you aren’t able to correct it later. The mishap also happens in real time, and those barriers can influence your ethos as a speaker.

In asynchronous speaking, you are able to control the content more easily because you can re-record, so if there’s a technological error, you can fix it! However, you lose the ability for audiences to provide you with live feedback, so you may be unaware if there’s a key question or issue that audiences need answered. We’ll discuss audiences in more detail below.

The Audience

New media has expanded the audience pool for public speaking. In traditional public speaking, the audience is often limited to those individuals who show up for the event—the audience is explicit or discrete. In online speaking, you may have a discrete or dispersed audience. These different audience types, along with synchronicity, alter how audience engagement can occur.

Consider our earlier example about presenting to a non-profit organization through Skype. In this example, it’s likely that you’re aware of who the audience is, so you’re able to link your content to the discrete (or defined) audience.

However, your audience may be dispersed and more difficult to determine. If you become passionate about a local policy, for example, and decide to post a speech on YouTube, the audience is dispersed because it’s unclear who will click the link. With a dispersed audience, it can be difficult to make specific references or calls to action because geographic locations may alter what individuals are able to do.

With a dispersed audience, there’s also an increased risk that audience members won’t view your digital speech. In Chapter 3, we discussed how digital communication has led to information overload – we’ve all experienced it. If you’re like us, you might scan through Instagram stories, clicking past images or videos that don’t catch your attention. If you’re posting a digital speech with a less-defined audience, the first few lines – the attention getter – become crucial to hook them into watching. Spend a little extra time crafting and rehearsing your attention getter.

Being in the Audience: you’ll likely audience many online public speeches – synchronous and asynchronous. Remember to take your position as an audience member seriously and avoid negative comments or trolling behavior. Even if you don’t know the speaker, how you contribute to the dialogue online (or how you communicate) still functions constitutively, so make sure the world-making that you’re participating in is ethical.

Section Summary

As you can see, there are quite a few variations that define the context of a digital speech: an informative, asynchronous speech with a discrete audience; a persuasive synchronous speech with a dispersed audience. The more information you have about these variations, the more you can be prepared to digitally speak with confidence and clarity.

Rehearsing to Speak Online

Rehearsing to speak online can feel a bit odd, especially when video software enters the mix. You’ll be more effective in rehearsal if you’re aware of the speaking context, including the categories mentioned in the previous section: purpose, synchronicity, and audience. Knowing the context will and should inform how you rehearse for a digital speech because you should always rehearse under the conditions that you’ll speak.

Pro-Tip: Rehearse under the conditions that you’ll speak.

Generally, we recommend integrating aesthetic strategies (as discussed in Part 3 of this book) as you would for other speeches— including the purposeful development of verbal, nonverbal delivery, and presentation aids. There are a few additional variables for delivering a speech digitally that we’ll track below.

Verbal Delivery

Verbal delivery is key in a digital speech – particularly webinars or web conferencing where your vocals overlay a slideshow and your body isn’t visible to an audience. Verbal enunciation, punctuation, rate, and pauses become key to maintaining your audiences’ attention. “Energy” becomes a key word – an energetic voice has variety and interest to it.

Audio-recording yourself during rehearsal on your smartphone or other device is a good first step, followed by thinking critically and honestly about whether your voice is listless, flat, or lacks energy. Since we tend to have a lower energy level when we sit, some experts suggest that web conference speakers stand to approximate the real speaking experience. As we have mentioned repeatedly through this book, preparing means practicing your speech orally and physically, many times.

Sound and projection are two variables that can affect your verbal delivery in digital contexts. It’s important to rehearse with any technology – including a microphone – that will be present and in the physical context that you’ll record the formal speech. If you have a microphone, you will need to alter your projection level. If you don’t have a microphone, be aware of how the recording device will pick up sound – including your voice and other noise around you. Extra noise can influence your credibility and the likelihood that an audience will continue listening.

For example, one of your authors recently had a local mayoral race, and the candidates used Instagram Live as a platform to deliver their insights. One candidate sat outside and, after they gave an initial welcome, began answering questions that were posted live. Sadly, however, being outside without a microphone made it difficult to hear, and there was lots of noisy feedback from the wind.

Like we mentioned above, effective rehearsal occurs under the conditions that you’ll speak. There are additional factors in digital contexts that can influence your vocal delivery, so rehearse with those factors in mind.

Nonverbal Delivery

When rehearsing your nonverbal delivery, ask, “what’s visible in the video?”

If your body is visible, you should rehearse with Chapter 8, nonverbal delivery, in mind. As you rehearse, be conscious of where the recording device will be. Will there be just one? Will there be multiple videos? How far away? In some instances, audiences may have the ability to view your speech from multiple vantage points. Being aware of where those cameras are—one or multiple – is key to rehearsing your eye contact and facial expressions.

Eye contact is still a key part of a digital speech. While you can avoid staring directly into the camera for an extended period of time, audiences still want some form of engagement, and eye contact allows you to make that connection. If you are recording the speech with or without a live audience, view the camera as your “audience substitute.”

Your facial expressions are also visible in a digital speech. If the camera is close up, this is even more true. Rehearse under these conditions, and record your facial expressions to see how they are translating to others. Also, ask: what is visible in the video? What adjustments do you want to make? Can you move further back? Can you adjust the camera? You will only have answers to these questions through a videoed rehearsal.

Finally, your background is also part of your video’s nonverbal aesthetics. Make sure that you consider how the background might translate to your audience. Is it messy? Distracting? Is it a white background? If so, you should avoid wearing white and disappearing into the walls.

Remember that your goal is to create an aesthetic experience that honors the purpose of your speech, so being accountable to all nonverbal factors will increase your ethos.

Additional Preparation Tips: 

  1. Make sure you will not be interrupted during the web conference.
  2. Have notes and anything else you need right at hand. While you can use a computer to display them, be conscious of your audience’s ability to see you reading.
  3. If you can be seen, be seen—use the technology to your advantage so that you are not an entirely disembodied voice talking over slides.

Presentation Aids

In some cases, an online speech will include presentation aids. It’s important to determine a) if the presentation aid is necessary and b) if you’re able to provide that presentation aid in a different form.

First, are you certain you need a presentation aid? It can be tempting to use a presentation aid for a digital speech to avoid being visible to the audience. After all, it’s common for digital presentation software to display either a visual aid or your body. If you’re only using a visual aid to avoid being displayed, that’s likely a poor reason, particularly because your embodied presentation is more interesting to the audience.

If you deem that a presentation aid is absolutely necessary (or required), make sure you’re following the guidelines from Chapter 10. Also, ask: do I need to provide it live or in the recording? If you’re presenting to a discrete audience and want to provide a graph or some data, send the information in a report ahead of time. This will allow your audience to feel acquainted with the information and can save you from having an additional technological component.

Section Summary

Like any public speech, when speaking online, you are responsible for crafting an effective advocacy that is composed of well-reasoned arguments that are delivered with purposeful aesthetic choices. This section has introduced variables that digital public speaking asks us to consider when rehearsing. We must underscore one key reminder: rehearse under the conditions that you’ll speak. Be confident that you’re aware of:

  • what technology will be needed;
  • where it will be located;
  • what you are responsible for;
  • how your embodiment of information translates.
Speaking for an Online Class

  •  Film your whole body—not just your head and shoulders
  • Do tech walk-throughs and make sure your camera is working well and picking up your voice. Make sure you can get the recording to your instructor. You probably will not be able to just send it through email because the file will be too big. You will have to post it to the cloud in some manner.
  • Wear appropriate clothing. Not being in class may tempt you to wear something too informal. This might be an opportunity to go a step beyond in your clothing. Make sure, also, that it looks good on camera in terms of color and lighting in your setting.
  • Be conscious of lighting. The light should be coming from behind the camera.

Conclusion

Digital public speaking is evolving. These tips and tactics should help not just avoid the major problems but also cross the finish line into an effective presentation.