The Art and Skill of Effective Public Speaking

Strong communications skills are essential in today’s competitive work environment. Many students begin developing their presentation abilities as early as the preschool show-and-tell circle, and continue to hone their public speaking prowess with each passing year. In this video, KWHS’s Katlyn Grasso speaks with Buck Benedict, a communications expert who urges his students to speak about who they are and what they are passionate about.Read More

by Diana Drake


Maybe you’ve felt the anxiety: sweaty palms, racing heart, dry mouth – it’s your turn to get up in front of a room of people and speak. For some, it is truly terrifying. Knowledge@Wharton High School reporter Katlyn Grasso sat down recently with communications specialist Arthur “Buck” Benedict to discuss the qualities of an effective public speaker.  

An edited version of the transcript appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: Hi, I’m Katlyn Grasso with Knowledge@Wharton High School. It is my pleasure to welcome Buck Benedict to our studio today. Buck Benedict teaches public speaking and speech writing at the Fels Institute of Government [the graduate program in public policy and public management at the University of Pennsylvania]. He began teaching at Wharton in 2002, where he taught management communications in the MBA program for eight years. He won the first Fels Teaching Award in 2009 and was also nominated for the 2013 Provost Award for Teaching Excellence. Buck also works as a communications consultant and a speech writer. Thanks for joining us today, Buck.

Buck Benedict: Thanks, Katlyn. It’s a pleasure.

KWHS: What does being a communications consultant entail?

Benedict: I started out in corporate communications and worked for a couple multinational companies. Part of my job — I had various assignments — was to write speeches. After I left corporate work in the early 1990s, I decided to go off into business for myself as a consultant. The job that I created was to help companies in crisis situations deal with the media and the public because of my experience in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. And then also, to write speeches for CEOs in those industries. So, a communications consultant is somebody who helps the heads of companies to communicate better.

KWHS: That’s great to know for our high school audience. How did you make the transition to being an instructor at Wharton in 2002?

Benedict: I got lucky. It was a time when Wharton was greatly expanding its MBA program and they needed more adjunct [faculty] to help teach the required core course in communications – it’s called management communications. Like lots of others, I came in, auditioned for it and got the part. That’s how I got started. It was a great opportunity, and I had a chance to teach in a couple of other schools, as well. But my focus [was] on Wharton and teaching management communications. Ultimately, I made a transition to the Fels Institute of Government when a job opened up there.

KWHS: How does your course at Fels help your students improve their communication skills?

Benedict: Well, communications is a skill. If you’re an athlete, you know that you’ve got to practice, have a coach and have repetition in terms of learning good things and doing them over and over again. What I’ve tried to do as a communications consultant and as a teacher is to give people the opportunity to practice, to give them assignments that are going to be helpful to them and then give them the opportunity to get feedback — from me, from their classmates and [from videotapes]. Seeing themselves on videotape will help them, as well. [We also look] at great speeches that I think will have something for the students to learn from. We get them off YouTube or we get them off presidential archive sites of speeches. [From there], I ask them to make a speech.

[My students give] different types of speeches. There’s an introduction speech to somebody at the beginning of the course. And there’s an occasion speech, which can be for any particular occasion. There’s a persuasive speech, and there’s an inspirational speech. I let them use their own course work or I let them use their own work experiences to build on things that they know they’re going to have to work on themselves. I try to make it as practical as I can.

KWHS: I had the chance to sit in on your class a few weeks ago, and it was fascinating and inspiring for me. Generally, what do you hope that your students will take away from your course?

Benedict: [The No. 1 thing] is confidence. I want them to feel better about their own speaking abilities. I also want to give them the opportunity to see themselves. [They might get a] criticism from their peers or from me or the teaching assistant, but unless they actually see it on camera, they’re not going to necessarily believe that they do this or they do that and that it could be a distraction [in their speech]. I want them to take away the fact that how they look [is important]. It’s natural to be nervous speaking because people are going to be judging you. How we look is going to be important to how we feel about ourselves.

What my students learn very, very quickly by looking at the videotape and by getting feedback is that, “I may feel nervous, but it doesn’t necessarily come across on the camera.” That leads to a freeing up of exaggerated concerns that they have. I try to build confidence. I try to build comfort. And by [having them] speak again and again, I try to give them the opportunity to learn and to organize their material. In a speech as opposed to a book, you don’t have the opportunity to look back over something. You can’t underline it and go back to the key things. You have one time to [capture the information]. A speaker has the responsibility to organize his thoughts so that they flow logically. And also, to try to emphasize with their voice and their body language those things that are most important. It’s like underlining.

KWHS: I know an important theme in your class is speaking the truth. So, what does speaking the truth mean to you?

Benedict: It’s something I teach from the very first class, right up to the last class when they give their inspirational speeches. Who are they? What are they all about? What are they passionate about? Tell their story; tell the stories of their families. I get a lot of immigrant stories in my class in the inspirational speeches about parents or grandparents who have made major changes in their lives; given up their homeland to go someplace else and create a family in a new country. It’s a wonderful inspiration for everybody else. Speaking the truth for me is all about who you are. My belief is that if you are able to expose yourself, if you’re able to be vulnerable, then you’ll be in a position to get other people to speak [about their own vulnerabilities]. All of a sudden, there’s a much, much deeper connection between people. It’s a much more honest communication.

KWHS: What are the characteristics of effective speakers?

Benedict: We talk about confidence. I think that’s very important. But again, think about confidence in terms of it’s your own sense of self worth. It’s your own feeling. I tell people in my classes, “I want you to talk about what’s important to you. I want you to feel that it’s necessary to communicate to that audience out there what you’re all about and what’s important to you.” Part of that confidence is feeling good about what you do.

It’s important to make eye contact to let the audience know that you care about them, to let them know that you’re paying attention to them. But I say it’s a two-way street, because I [also] want you as a speaker to be taking in what the audience is telling you in return. They’re making all sorts of comments with their body language, with their facial expressions and things like that. You as the speaker have to be able to read these things so that you know how to adjust and do everything you possibly can to adapt yourself to what’s happening in the audience at that moment.

One of the hardest things for speakers to do is to part from [their] scripts because of the confidence factor, because they practiced it [and] they feel good about it. But a lot of times they have to make these adjustments in order to be present in the moment to that particular audience. They as speakers have to be reading the signals that [the audience] is sending back to them.

Lastly, I want [speakers] to respect the audience. I think it’s awfully important that if an audience is paying attention to a speaker, the speaker owes them the obligation to listen very carefully to questions the audience might have that still haven’t been answered. A lot of times speakers finish a speech and they go, “Whew, that’s all over.” But it’s not all over. The most important thing to that particular audience is the answer to their questions. So, I want people to be looking forward to those answers as the opportunity to pay back the audience for all the time and attention that they’ve given them.

KWHS: That’s great advice. I know that you teach undergrads, but mainly graduate students.

Benedict: That’s right.

KWHS: How can you apply these skills you mentioned to high school students?

Benedict: One of the best teaching experiences I ever had was right here at Penn in the Upward Bound program. I had a class [of high school students]. I’ve got to say, they scared me to death. They were full of energy. These are summer school students. They expect to learn a lot in a very short time. There must have been 22 of them — high school seniors and juniors.

I got them in a class and, quite frankly, I didn’t know how to relate to them. And I thought, “My God, how can I do this? What do I have that’s going to be helpful to them?” I took my basic course of 14 weeks and I tried to narrow it down to three or four or six classes. I basically tried to give them the idea that they have to connect with the audience. They have to be able to be honest about themselves and tell their stories. They have to be able to read what the audience is saying back to them.

[I showed them] Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I show to every class. I don’t care whether you’re a high school audience or a graduate school audience; everybody should see and appreciate that speech. But I also try to have them read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because I think, again, here is a beautiful example of really boiling down important ideas into very few — 272 — words.

I think the same lessons pertain to high school students that pertain to graduate students – be yourself. Be honest with yourself, communicate with the audience honestly and get into a conversation with the audience if you possibly can. Read their body language. So often we go in and we don’t have a sense of who the audience is. You’ve got to do your homework, because if you’re going to communicate with them in their language and in ways that they’re going to understand, you’ve got to be in a position to know who they are and what they care about.

KWHS: Thank you so much, Buck, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be here with us today. It was an honor to have you at the KWHS studio. Just to leave the audience with one final question, what are your favorite speeches of all time?

Benedict: That’s a hard question to answer. I’d like to give you a range. I use TED talks a lot because they’re current. [TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” It runs a TED Talks video site on which it features more than 1,500 free talks to “stir your curiosity.”]  I get complaints from my students: “Your speeches are so old. Why don’t you have something current?” So, I use TED talks a lot. I use [a speech from] Susan Cain. She wrote the book Quiet about introverts in a world of extroverts. It’s a wonderful story about her being a young girl and an introvert going to camp. She goes there with a whole slew of books and she thinks summer camp is going to be the greatest experience of her life because she’s going to have the chance to read all these books. She never had a chance to read one because the summer camp was doing something else – it’s extroversion.

Isabel Allende’s talk about passion is very important for people to look at. Another one is Amy Cuddy’s talk about power positions and getting people ready to face interviews or speeches.

YouTube is a great source of speeches. I think a very good one is a very short one. It’s the singer Bono’s acceptance speech of the NAACP Award back in 2007 or 2008. It’s only four minutes long but, boy, if you want to see somebody speaking their truth and the passion of their conviction, take a look at Bono’s NAACP acceptance speech.

KWHS: Thanks again, Buck. I’m Katlyn Grasso with Knowledge@Wharton High School, and thanks for joining us, everyone.


Related Links

Conversation Starters

What does Buck Benedict mean by “speaking your truth?” What is your truth? If you were giving an inspirational speech, what topic might you focus on?

Should a public speaker be as focused on the audience as they are on him? Why or why not?

Watch one of Benedict’s recommended speeches, referenced in the Related Links, and reflect on its content. List 5 reasons why he might think this is a good speech. Did the speech interest you? Inspire you? Why or why not?

7 comments on “The Art and Skill of Effective Public Speaking

  1. This is excellent information for MBA students, as i was student at MBA at UMT and learn a lot about presentations & communications skills but still i am working to enhance my communication skills but confidence is the key… Owner at Packagor

  2. It is a broad fact that if someone wants to influence others, open the doors for new opportunities, network, and spread his/her ideas, it is VERY important to have a logical flow of ideas that is expressed in a manner that grabs the audience’s attention and provides them with an incentive to listen to the speaker’s perspective, internalize the information, and learn from what the speaker has to say. As such, audience analysis and adaptation are KEY abilities that effective speakers must have in order to fulfill their objective of influencing and informing a group of individuals, and this requires speakers to pay close attention to the actions and the state of an audience. It is important to realize that there are a variety of audiences that differ in their interests, levels of understanding, and perspectives on certain topics. As such, it is crucial for speakers, or those seeking to influence others, to undertake an audience-centered approach in order to improve the efficacy of one’s message and create a lasting effect on the audience.

    It is important to realize that this does NOT mean to throw away one’s thoughts on an issue if they clash with the ideology of an audience. Rather, it is crucial to pay close attention to the audience’s expectations, attitudes, and knowledge in order to maintain their attention and maintain your influence over them. For example, if an audience expects to be respected and have their questions answered, it is important for the speaker to meet these expectations while carefully maneuvering the audience towards a perspective that resonates with the speaker’s message. For example, if a principal were to give a speech commemorating a beloved teacher that was known for the guidance and aid that she gave high school students for 30 years, the audience would expect the speech to be very respectful and kind. If the speech were, on the other hand, to be bluntly rude and condescending, the audience would not only be offended but the speaker would lose credibility, as well. Other factors, such as understanding an audience’s attitude towards a topic or the level of knowledge that they have in regards to a topic, is crucial towards diverting from a script and delivering a message that suits the audience’s interests. For example, when discussing global issues with young children, it is important to use simple vocabulary and accurate, relatable, easy-to-understand scenarios that create a theme that is easy to follow. On the other hand, it is not necessary to explain basic concepts in regards to biochemistry if a student is explaining his/her thesis to professors that have been teaching the curriculum for decades. These observations of one’s audience will help a speaker to create the proper mode of delivery and use of language that will retain the audience’s attention and make it easier for the speaker to accomplish his/her goal.

    And, as Mr. Benedict stated, it is important to pay attention to the needs of the audience and answer their questions so that they not only get some value from a presentation, but they also internalize the information on a higher level and receive a much large impact. People, in general, are greatly interested in aspects of life that directly affect them or things they care about. As such, it is crucial for influencers and speakers to be able to explain why his/her message is important to the audience, inform them of all of the different aspects and scenarios in regards to the topic, and answer their questions in a respectful and fulfilling manner. This relates back to the “incentives” that I discussed at the beginning of this post and just how important it is to pay attention to an audience’s needs in order to be effective.

    Now, this has MANY implications on one’s career path and choice. Just as it was discussed in another KWHS article, “What It Takes to Become a CEO,” progression in the workforce and becoming a leader REQUIRES one to be able to communicate persuasively as this opens new avenues towards business deals, research opportunities, success, and networking that can be crucial towards success. As such, it is important to be respectful and give others a REASON to listen to what you have to say, and one of the most effective ways to go about doing this is by adapting to the audience and delivering your message in a way the resonates with the audience and fulfills your goal. This, of course, does require research, practice, and experience, but I do believe that if one makes the active effort to become a better communicator and learn how to adapt one’s message to the circumstances, then he/she will definitely be able to create a more impactful effect on the audience.

  3. I agree and relate with Buck Benedict that confidence is very important in public speaking because it allows you to fully express your emotions and open yourself up. I have experienced what it feels like to speak with confidence and how it makes you become a better speaker.

    Throughout my many years in middle school and high school, I would have to give all kinds of presentations such as poetry or book reports and give speeches in my English class which would cause me to become very scared and nervous because I didn’t have confidence in myself that I could do it. I would worry about doing the presentation the whole day and my hands would start to sweat when its almost my turn to present. However, a speech camp I took a few days ago changed me.

    A few days ago I attended a, two-week Bradley SFI Speech Camp and met some of the best speech students in the nation. The camp was a nervous experience for me because this was the first time I ever wrote an informative speech while there were many people who had years of experience and even had top placements in the nation in speech. I was never confident in myself and would be nervous when I would give presentations so this camp was out of comfort zone. However, I told myself I would try my best and I set a goal in the beginning of camp that I would try to become confident when I speak. When I was close to the end of camp, we had to present our speech to judges, in an event called pre-festival and festival, 6 times over a period of 3 days. During my first 3 rounds in pre-festival, I used note cards and was nervous when I gave my speech causing me to sometimes skip words or speak too fast. After the first 3 attempts, judges gave all of us ballots, which are comments about your speech. Some of my ballots talked about how I had the potential to be a very good public speaker and that I had the skills to become one. This gave me confidence to present my speech because now I feel confident in my speech and I feel that I could do any speech now. However, I lost that confidence for my first round of festival because I was very nervous. In my first
    two rounds, I had to read off my note cards a lot and I would stumble on some words because I was very nervous and didn’t have confidence in myself. After those two rounds though, I became more confident in my speech through the positive and motivational feedback of my judges and me becoming more familiar with my speech. So for my final round, I was able to give my speech barely using any note cards and without talking too fast or making a lot of mistakes. Also my judges gave me ballots talking about how much I have improved since the beginning of pre-festival and that I have the ability to become a good public speaker if I have more confidence in myself. Because of all these ballots, I have gained confidence in myself when I give speeches now and the final round of festival gave me a small taste of what it is like to speak with confidence.

    This experience has taught me that confidence is key in public speaking because it allows you to talk freely and conversational without becoming nervous.

  4. Thank you Buck and Katlyn for that inspiring and relatable speech!

    One particular statement that Benedict made was: “Think about confidence in terms of it’s your own sense of self worth…Part of that confidence is feeling good about what you do.” That’s exactly what I wanted to do and how I yearned to express myself, yet I couldn’t for the majority of my life.

    Throughout elementary school, I was crippled by my lack of confidence. Every thought to add to a conversation was accompanied by its counterpart of how everything could go so wrong. It came to the point where I even stopped bothering to open my mouth. I focused too much on my bowed legs, that one awkward dot on my finger, and how my thoughts seemed so insignificant compared to how high stock prices could rise or the ever-present fights in our country. It was truly one of the most frustrating feelings to have so much to say but too little confidence to actually say it.

    The summer before 5th-grade, my brother looked up from his bowl of rice at dinner and smirked at me. Whenever that smile is plastered across his face, I know something bad is bound to happen. Then my father dropped the bomb: “Elise, I enrolled you into a public speaking and debate class.”

    I remember shuffling into the first day of class with my head down, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. When I left class, I was discouraged and intimidated by the towering people and their booming voices. I braced my way through every class, doing what I could to learn and improve my speaking but leaving every week with a bright red face.

    By 7th grade, I was given the choice to quit, and instantly, I took it. That was until my father encouraged me to try a trial class taught by another academy.

    In just the first class, I had muttered a lot more than a few jumbled sentences and been introduced to a community of wonderful people. The coaches encouraged me to speak my mind even when I felt like I had nothing to say and to confidently press the unmute button on Zoom. Every student was eager to offer constructive feedback and remained respectful towards one another, even in the midst of a heated debate. But what fascinated me the most was the global topics we discussed. I had never delved so deep into what I heard on my mom’s car radio! The Persian Gulf crisis, US-Taiwan relations, and “No Knock” warrants felt so…close.

    It was amazing – after every class, I could sense my improvement. I had built confidence in myself as a person and in my speaking capabilities. I had also discovered much more about the world than I had in my previous decade of living.

    During one particular class, the director of the academy asked if I was willing to help her host a free online lesson for younger students to find their confidence. I had doubts if I could help at all but knowing how suffocating it was to be trapped in a bubble was enough to say ‘yes’. I helped students to learn how to present their thoughts in an engaging debate and chip away a piece of their bubble.

    As important as confidence was when I was 9 years old, it’s even more critical now when tensions are on the rise. From Roe v. Wade to the Uvalde school shooting, each and every person’s voice must be heard. Confidence is the key to shaping our nation into the change that our society needs. The United States has always been known to be the land of the free. But we can never truly be free unless we escape the cages of self-doubt and finally enter a new light where we can utilize our freedom of speech to advocate for ourselves!

    I love how Benedict is helping others learn how to express themselves with confidence and I hope that one day, I can learn to be as effective as he is in helping others. From being the 4’9”, reclusive girl picking her thumb at the back of class, I have since transformed into the 5’4.25” (every quarter-inch counts) girl who confidently raises her hand up to the last minute of class. I am constantly amazed by my voice projecting across the room when I present, in ways I never believed possible four years ago. As Benedict stated, “Emphasize with [your] voice and [your] body language those things that are most important.” My opinion and my voice are important and I will use my newfound confidence to advocate for what is right!

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