Archive for March, 2010


Public Speaking and the Kitchen Table

Sitting at the kitchen table this morning  filling out the Census  (I hope to live long enough to use all three ‘age’ blocks) in between making pancakes, I was thinking about the choices that public speakers make about using podiums or not using podiums.  I was also thinking about  how intimate kitchen table discussions tend to be.  If only public speakers could mimic that sort of relaxed, guard-down connection we tend to have at the table, coffee-cup in hand, maybe there would be no wars.   To be sure, though,  all public speaking events do not require a speaker to be kitchen-table intimate, and that’s why there are options for public speakers that can get a little messy.  This post is aimed at cleaning up those options to help you speak up and speak well at your next event.

A couple of weeks ago I was giving a speech for Women’s History Month at Penn State Lehigh Valley when I realized that there would be a cavernous area of carpeted emptiness between me and my audience if I stood at the podium.  I decided that since the occasion was more informal than most speaking events, I would simply stand at one of the tables and deliver my remarks from there, since I reasoned to my mostly female audience:  “most of us make life’s greatest decisions and enjoy the most personal of moments at the kitchen table.”    Then I thought of Elizabeth Dole’s effort to connect with her audience by eschewing the podium.   She told me when I interviewed her in 1998 that “I think of the podium as a barrier between me and my audience and I prefer to move around.”  This was after her blockbuster 1996 GOP Convention speech when she strolled the audience to speak “about the man I love” (her husband, Bob, who was then the GOP presidential nominee).   Few of us get such a moment to move around the audience and “create a new form of campaigning” as Dan Rather gushed after that speech.  That same year, Hillary Clinton gave her convention speech and plaintively noted:  “I wish we could be sitting around a kitchen table, just us, talking about our hopes and fears, about our children’s futures.”   A nice thought, but not a practical alternative to the far-reaching potential of a public speech. 

Still, all public speakers need to make the decision whether  to stand behind the podium or simply stand and deliver, so to speak.   In  this post, I thought I’d distill some of the ways that public speakers can make the call whether or not to use a podium.  

What are the options?

Standing Behind a Podium

There are floor models and table top models and for more informal, teaching-type speeches, the table top works well.  But if you need amplification, or the event is more formal, a floor model with the optional microphone is a better option.  Depending on how well you amplify your voice, when the audience rises above twenty-five, it is better to use a microphone.  The mere act of walking up to the podium identifies you as the speaker and will let your audience know the speech is about to start. Use your podium to hold notes that mark the important points you want to make in your speech. Checking your notes for the next point to be made while you are finishing up your previous point will keep you on track. 

 Do not lean on the podium or slouch on it or around it because your appearance and your voice quality will suffer. By standing up straight, you will allow your voice to project clearly and be better understood. Avoid rocking back and forth with the podium or propping you feet on the podium’s base. These are distracting movements that will take the audience’s attention off your speech’s subject matter. 

Check your height!  I “tower” 5 ft. 2″ on a ‘tall’ day, and 5’5″ with some serious height-enhancing footwear.  Most podiums are too tall for me and I end up looking like, just a “talking head.”  That’s why it is useful to travel with a little “step” (I have a 3 inch platform I keep in my trunk for speaking events) that I could bring in when I have the case of the overwhelming podium.  It is another reason table top podiums can be a better choice.

If you are using a microphone:  Check the audio before the audience arrives.  “Check, check, can you hear me?”  is not ethos-enhancing for any speaker.  Have a back-up in case the audio fails.

Standing in the Center or Front of the Room without a Podium

This can be a good option for a pat “stump speech” or a very informal event, especially one that you are trying to create a positive personal reaction to you.  For example, if you are running for office, it is useful to create a close or as immediate a connection as possible between you and your audience.  This is not a good option, however, if you need to rely on your notes a lot (you will be looking down instead of at your audience) or if you need or want to create an impression of authority.  If you are too much a populist, critics may argue that you are not enough of a leader.  Women in particular have to guard against appearing too teacher-like, especially when angling for careers or positions that are male-dominated.

Using a Teleprompter

A funny parody of President Obama shows him using a teleprompter at home to communicate with his family about soccer practice, homework and other domestic events.  With the proliferation of television communication using a teleprompter is likely for any of us.    So if your speech is to be televised, consider this option.

The way a teleprompter works is to display the text on a monitor mounted on the camera, beneath the lens.  It is a mirror image that is reflected up to a glass panel in front of the camera lens which flips it the right way round and makes it readable.  The text is scrolled bottom to top by an operator  on a laptop.  There may be a little cursor on the screen, towards top left to give a guide. The speed of the scroll is controlled by the operator and the operator will follow the speaker.  If you pause, they will pause.Ask the operator to set the font size to suit your eyesight.  The bigger the font the fewer words on the screen, so the less chance you have of seeing what’s coming up.   Too small and you’ll be struggling to read accurately.  You should read the script beforehand and be familiar with it on paper.  Of course if you’ve written it yourself, you should be familiar with it, but still, read it again.    Keep your head, neck, and shoulders relaxed.  If you lock your head into a rigid position, only your eyes can move to read the text.  If the camera is fairly close it’s very obvious you are reading, and it reduces your credibility. Move your head naturally.    Some teleprompter users become so skilled in using it, that the audience believes the speaker is simply speaking. Used properly the teleprompter can take away a lot of stress and can ensure that if your speech will go down in history or if it needs to be legally accurate, it won’t harm you or your organization. 

So consider your options carefully — podium, table-top or floor model, amplified or not;  standing and delivering without a podium or the use of a tele-prompter.

Of  course, there is always simply sitting at a kitchen table, where I think many great speeches have no doubt been delivered, though likely to very limited-size audiences.    This morning my daughter, Emi asked where the glass top for the kitchen table got to.  When the kids were little I had piece of glass cut to fit on top of the kitchen table.  Because it belonged to my parents, the old kitchen set  is one of my prized possessions.  Under the chairs to the table  reads a decal dated “1942” and the name of the furniture store where my parents purchased the lovely oak set.   I told Emi that I put the glass top away after I realized that she and her brother posed no threat to the table since they had long left their crayons, Play-Doh and markers behind.  It would be me—in a mad rush to quickly iron a table-cloth before guests arrived—who would cause a burn mark on the top of the table.     If you want to leave your mark as a public speaker (and not a burn mark), choose your speaking delivery style carefully.


What’s the difference between making a speech and presenting a paper?

It is that time in the semester when “honors option” papers come due.  And every year I ask students to present their research to the class.  Maybe it is because I teach speech, and they are presenting their papers in speech class, but every semester students grapple about whether their presentation is a speech or if they are just ‘giving their paper.’  They aren’t the only confused scholars.  I can still remember my disappointment more than a decade ago when I attended my first professional conference and found many of my colleagues in speech communication especially lacking in eloquence as they shared their research.  I love irony.  So today, I thought I’d distill some of the ways thoughtful writers could present their research findings to audiences.   This article previously appeared in the North Dakota  Journal of Speech and Theatre, September, 2005, pp 44-48.






The world of work requires effective communicators.  Careers are sidetracked and messages are bungled by the inability of professionals to deliver written work in a compelling way.   Some of the confusion may be caused by the differences between public speaking and paper presentations.  Public speaking is  reserved for more formal events, such as political speeches, keynote business addresses and even toasts at a wedding.  Paper presentations should make points in an oral context, not a written one, and to do so with precision.  By following the guidelines in this article, business professionals and scholars who present their work at conferences, will gain insight into striking the right balance between oral communication that compels the audience to listen and making sure that the audience receives the full message. 


Paper presentations, talks, signposts

                  A search of many basic public speaking textbooks, organizational communication textbooks and even professional speaking books geared to businesspeople will find that the authors use the terms “presentation” and “speech” interchangeably.  In most basic public speaking textbooks, techniques for delivering a paper at a professional conference or in a classroom, are not even considered.  While Presentations in Everyday Life promises, by its title, to include practical public speaking advice, nowhere in the text are paper presentation techniques offered. The best selling basic public speaking textbook in the country, Stephen Lucas’ The Art of Public Speaking completely ignores the subject of paper presentations.  In Fundamentals of Organizational Communication; Knowledge, Sensitivity, Skills and Values, the term “presentational speaking” is used to describe both public speeches and technical report delivery (Shockley-Zalabak, 296). In the late 1990s Penn State University made a university-wide change in the name of the basic speech course from “Effective Speech” to “Effective Presentations,” yet the course content remained the same.

When we or our colleagues present scholarly work at a conference or in a meeting, the purpose and presentation style differs from a traditional public speech in several important ways.  It is common for conference presentations to include word for word recitation of complete paragraphs from papers, definitions need to be offered precisely, and statistics are often cited.  Business professionals are frequently asked to share reports with staff, and still there is a lack of advice available to help the authors of those reports turn their written pages in effective oral presentations.

                In this article I offer suggestions for giving successful scholarly or business presentations.  I refer to them as “talks” or presentations  instead of the more theatrical form of public speech that we are likely to encounter in other public settings, such as politics, graduation ceremonies, weddings and during business dinner speeches.

                A good talk will not conceal poor scholarship, but a poor one could negate even a very good research effort.  A scholarly presentation consists of two parts:  the information that the author wishes to tell the audience and the information that the author wants to show the audience.  Authors may wish to show graphs, charts, photos or even objects to more clearly make a point about their scholarship.

                To “speak” a paper, authors should define a few critical messages that they want the audience to take away from the presentation.  In many cases, this requires significant editing, since scholarly papers usually have a significant amount of detail that is not easily reduced to a few points.  For this reason, scholars should always provide copies of their paper for the audience to read after the presentation.   It is important to remind authors that they should not read their paper.  Written language use and oral language use are different, and audiences become bored when being read a scholarly paper.  This means that the author cannot cover everything   written in the typical amount of time granted a speaker.  Therefore, the author will focus a talk differently than the paper is focused.


Authors should “signpost,”  that is, use verbal markers to indicate important points in  the presentation or argument. “Signposts” include such verbal indicators as transitions, internal summaries and previews.  A transition is also known as a connective, since it literally connects one point in the presentation to another.  Underlined are common transitions in the following sentences:

In addition to being an excellent singer, Joni Mitchell has gained acclaim as an artist.

 Pundits say that the spouse of a candidate doesn’t have an impact in the polls, yet popular first ladies are used excessively on the campaign trail.

 Of equal importance is following up with a phone call when you want to stress your interest in a position.

 On the other hand, those students who work and attend classes are more mature than those who simply attend school.

  Finally, when selecting a job candidate, remember manners matter!

 Internal previews  reveal or suggest salient points in an author’s presentation.  They tell the audience what the author is going to cover and in what order.  For example:

What is Robert Kennedy’s  legacy? Some say he is a martyr like his brother, John, and others say he was just another case of nepotism. Either or both perceptions of his life shape his legacy. Internal summaries  are similar to internal previews, except that a summaryends a section, whereas a preview begins one.   Here’s how the presentation on Robert Kennedy would benefit from an internal summary:

 Remember that the legacy of Robert Kennedy is influenced by two schools of thought:  one that he was a martyr who died advocating his beliefs and another that he was an overrated politician whose quick rise was  due to one factor:  family influence.

 The academic paper on Robert Kennedy would contain many more details,however for an oral  presentation, simplicity is key.  Being redundant is encouraged when delivering a scholarly paper, since oral language is usuallymuch more  redundant than written language.

   What follows is an outline for presenting a research paper.  Depending on the discipline, some information will change, however, this offers an author a guide to follow that will ensure a thorough and engaging presentation that meets the needs of the author and the audience.  

 1. The thesis clearly stated in a method that provokes thinking.

Some ways to begin that will create listener interest include a question, short story, quotation or striking statement. 

 There are several questions that the author should consider answering at this beginning phase.  What is the thesis? Why should the author or the audience care about it?  

2.    The contributions of this paper

Having clearly described the thesis in a way that creates audience interest in the subject, the author must describe the specific study and approach of the paper. If it is theoretical, the author should offer an overview of the techniques, setting and model; and the main results.   If it is empirical or experimental, the author should describe the model or hypotheses to be tested, the data set or experimental design and the methodology used to analyze the data.   Clarity and brevity are important, even if  the audience is well schooled in the subject, because a talk is meant to be less detailed than the written document.

3. Relation to the literature

The author should put the contribution of the paper in perspective by describing how the results of the paper fit with what is already known. 

 4. Definitions and descriptions of data

Convey the basic insights and intuitions of the paper

5. Main results

Remember to focus on information that will help the audience understand your research and its most salient features.

6. Conclusions

Implications for future research, as well as the limitations of the results.  Just as in the beginning of the talk, the author needs to sum up dramatically and with attention to the needs of the audience.  

 Authors should encourage discussion, since it is the main function of most scholarly presentations.  Once discussion ensues, how to handle audience questions is also an important feature of scholarly paper presentations.  Authors should welcome questions and patiently listen to the question without stepping on the questioner’s words.  Pausing and not rushing the answer is also important, since it shows that the presenter is listening carefully to the question.  Repeat the question in the microphone, if there is one, so that everyone in the room knows what it is and answer only the question that has been asked—no more and no less.   Presenters should make eye contact with the entire audience, not only the person who has asked the question.   If you have been asked to present your paper for twenty minutes, ask how much total time you will have, since you will want to save at least twenty percent of your talk for questions and audience interaction and discussion.

                Even more precisely, here is a four step set of features for presenting scholarly work to an audience:

  1. Engage the listeners with the thesis of the  study 
  2. Explain your methodology or why you researched this topic 
  3. Share your findings
  4. Concisely offer conclusions and opportunities for future research in a way that sums up your topic and creates audience interest.

If the author wishes to  include visuals in a presentation, there are a few rules to follow. First, keep them simple! PowerPoint is a great tool, but the focus of the presentation should still be on the author, not fancy computer graphics. Overheads are just as effective as PowerPoint and tend to distract less from the speaker.  Overheads or PowerPoint can serve the purpose of helping the author by keeping him “on point.”  They will allow the author move around a bit and create a more natural affect than if the speaker is glued to the podium. 

Also, overheads or PowerPoint slides that contain graphs or tables help the audience to see what the author means without a complicated oral explanation.  Text on overheads or on PowerPoint should be large enough so that the entire audience could read  it without straining (at least 24 points).  Limiting text on overheads or PowerPoint to bulleted items will further simplify and clarify the message.

                The main goal of a good research presentation is to present your research in an engaging and relevant manner. It is likely that your audience will contain a world expert on your topic, as well as people who have never even heard of your topic. Your challenge is to make the material equally understandable and interesting to both audiences.  Remember always to speak up and speak well!


Daly, J. and Engleberg, I. (2001). Presentations in Everyday Life.  Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.

Lucas, S.  (2004).  The Art of Public Speaking.  New York, NY:  McGraw-Hill.

Shockley-Zalabak, P. (2002). Fundamentals of Organizational Communication;  Knowledge, Sensitivity, Skills and Values.  Boston, MA:  Allyn and Bacon.


From 1964-2008 Women’s Presidential History is nothing short of inspiring

Gail Collins has written another must-read book.  Her latest, When Everything Changed has been described as a “rousing epic” and a “monumental work.”  I not only agree with those descriptions, I want to add that the book is an affirmation of the progress of women in the United States and it is nothing short of inspirational.  As I prepared a brief talk I’ll be giving today at Penn State Lehigh Valley for Women’s History Month, it occurred to me that the progress for women in general in the United States is parallel to the progress that women as presidential candidates have experienced. 

In 1964 Margaret Chase Smith ran for president.  Here are some lyrics to a campaign song that was written for her:   

“We want a woman in the White House, we want some hist’ry to be made….To    make the country hustle, give Uncle Sam a bustle, and make the Gen’ral Staff the ladies aid. We want a woman with some know-how…Someone to carry on the   fight….She’d eliminate a war and be home again by four, she’s a woman and a  woman’s always right. She has a secret weapon that would cast a peaceful spell.   It’s “Bingo” played by Hotline with Nikita and Fidel.  Evacuate the Pentagon; On this we’re standing pat….But leave the building standing and we’ll put in a   laundromat. ”

Could you imagine a campaign song  for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that  includes references to bingo and a laundromat?  I cannot.

  In 1972 when Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm ran for president she said, in reference to her double minority status:  “People think I’m half crazy.”  Not exactly ethos-enhancing rhetoric, as I tell my CAS students.  And it didn’t get much better with the other campaigns that women led:  in 1988 Pat Schroeder was much derided for her tear-laden withdrawal speech, drawing consternation from women and men who said, essentially, “See!  Women are just too soft to run the country!”  In 2000 Elizabeth Dole was widely described as “the first serious woman presidential candidate”  but dropped out when she realized that she simply could not compete financially with George W. Bush and Steve Forbes.   Her campaign message was a conflict of acknowledging the historic nature of a woman president, with the slogan “Let’s Make History” and disconnecting with younger women who could not appreciate Dole’s achievements in the starchy 1950s as one of only a handful of women at Harvard.  Rhetorically, her Oprah-syle feminine rhetoric was at odds with the masculinity-centric United States presidency.  In 2004 the ebullient, but under-funded and supported Carol Moseley Braun failed to launch as the only woman in a sea of Democratic hopefuls.  Every one of these women were symbolic presidential candidates.  

Enter Hillary Clinton in 2008.  She almost won.  No one doubted her toughness.  She moved from a feminine to a masculine style of communication with ease.  I call it rhetorical elasticity.  In the short span of 44 years (my lifetime exactly) women went from being symbolic presidential candidates to bona fide contenders.   

It is worth noting that “everything has changed” for women presidential candidates in the United States.   The trick is to keep the momentum moving forward.

Nichola Gutgold is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley and author of Almost Madam President:  Why Hillary Clinton ‘won’ in 2008. 


Thanks, Oprah! (JK)

JK is “text talk” for Just Kidding (in case you are over fourteen).  I had fun placing my books near the “Oprah” sign today at the mall.  Seriously, though Oprah, if you are reading this, I could possibly make room for an appearance on your show.  Let’s talk.

No, my books haven’t sold a lot (yet), but they sure have been rewarding to write.  And they have sold a little.   Even more importantly,  Spring Break is officially over and classes begin again this week.  Whenever I have a break of a week or more I miss teaching so much that I have my outfits all picked out  for the week, my lesson plans written and re-written and several emails sent to my students nudging them about things we are doing in class.  Students:  I hope you have worked hard to research your informational speech topics.  Thorough outlines are due this week. (Some students read this blog for extra credit).

Here is some information on an upcoming campus event that looks especially worthwhile:  Thursday, April 1 at 6:00 p.m. at Penn State Lehigh Valley in Center Valley, Dawn Lennon  from Big Picture Consulting and Sybil Stershic will present a panel titled “Stop Fooling Yourself.”  These two business powerhouses will discuss how to position yourself for opportunity.  I don’t think it means moving your books to more opportune locations at bookstores, but it might!  I will be there and I strongly encourage you to attend.  It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that the topic “Stop Fooling Yourself” could be of immense value.


Rainy Saturdays are perfect for antiquing and bookstore browsing

If we have to row our boat to get around today (it was a very rainy night in Fogelsville) Geoff and I are heading to the WDIY Heart of the Valley Antique Show at the Ice House in Bethlehem. Over twenty-five vendors! I’m looking for an old school desk to go with my not-so-new podium that I bought last week. Every public speaking professor needs a podium. When we are all done checking out the good deals we are heading to the Doylestown Bookshop where I’ll be signing copies of my book Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton ‘won’ in 2008. I’ll be there from 2-4 p.m. with free AAUW bookmarks courtesy of my good friend and AAUW member Linda Friscia-Oppe. Please join us! Emi and Ian came, too! There’s a wonderful coffee shop nearby with really delicious goodies. So come spend the day with us in Bethlehem and Doylestown. It will be an outing. Even if we have to swim to get there!


From The Ducking Stool to The White House

When you consider the relative youth of America, it was not very long ago that women had no say in public affairs. One torture method used specifically against women public speakers during Colonial times was the ducking stool. It was a chair that was hung from the end of a free-moving arm. The woman was strapped into the chair which was situated by the side of a river. The contraption would then be swung over the river by the use of the free-moving arm. The woman would then be ducked into the freezing cold water. Seems like an impossibility now when so many women hold positions of power, doesn’t it? And imagine my delight when my fourteen year old, straight-A student daughter registered a complete blank look on her face when I told her that I have two tickets to hear Gloria Steinem speak next month at Kutztown University and we would make it a mother-daughter outing. She said, “Who is she? Do I have to go?”

While we do not have such torture devices as the ducking stool anymore and young women do not have a universal understanding of the women who fought to make America more equal to both men and women, we need to be reminded that there are still subtle ducking stools all over the place.
The unfair media treatment of women candidates for higher office exact a power over women equal to if not greater than the ducking stool.

By studying the experiences of women candidates we will learn from them and develop strategies that will make future women candidates more successful. Tonight, the Women’s Campaign Forum will host a gala event: The Parties of Your Choice Gala. This event will feature authors and advocates for women in the public sphere. And next month, I’ll take my daughter to hear Gloria Steinem and she’ll learn more about what women have faced and how to make her own future everything she wants it to be.

Nichola Gutgold is associate professor at Penn State Lehigh Valley and author of Paving the Way for Madam President and Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton ‘won’ in 2008.


Equally persuasive, but different

In The Woman’s Public Speaking Handbook authors Natalle and Bodenheimer note the good and bad news about perceptions of women as public speakers. “The good news is that women are equal to men in achieving persuasion; they just will not be acknowledged for it. The bad news is that a woman has a strike against her each time she steps on the stage to speak, and so must “work” the audience that much more than a man, or at least work it differently than a man.” And that’s also why we need to study the ways that women candidates have communicated successfully to learn from them. On Thursday night, I’ll be sharing some of the research I have gleaned about women’s public speaking in the political realm at the “Parties of Your Choice Gala” sponsored by the Women’s Campaign Forum. In a nutshell, I’ll encourage listeners to read both Paving the Way for Madam President and Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton ‘won’ in 2008 because they study the rhetorical skills of six women who have sought the United States presidency.

This morning I met with a bright and ambitious young broadcast journalism major at Penn State. She surprised me when she said, “I just don’t think a woman will ever be president of the United States.” I told her that a woman will indeed be president, and likely in her lifetime and I handed her a copy of my book. It isn’t a matter of “if” it is a matter of “when.” By studying women politicos past and president and learning from their campaigns we can turn doubt into certitude.

Nichola D. Gutgold is an associate professor at Penn State Lehigh Valley. On Saturday, March 13 from 2-4 p.m. she’ll be signing her book Almost Madam President at the Doylestown Bookshop.

March 2010
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