The Art of Public Speaking: Q&A with Joshua Compton

by Zach Gorman | 10/18/17 2:25am

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by Andrew Yang / The Dartmouth

Writing and rhetoric professor Josh Compton’s research primarily focuses on inoculation theory and the influence of public speaking. Compton’s course Speech 20, “Public Speaking,” aims to optimize students’ understanding of public speaking through the study of its history, methods and challenges.

What is your background in public speaking? How did you originally become interested in the subject?

JC: That sounds like a really simple question and has a really complicated answer. Throughout most of my childhood and early adolescence, I actively sought to avoid public speaking, let alone study it, let alone do it. I am a stutterer, and stuttering doesn’t typically seem to be in the same realm as those who enjoy public speaking. But in my first year as a college student, I was required to take a public speaking course. I didn’t know it at the time, but my public speaking professor was a giant in the field. He was the coach of one of the nation’s winningest speech and debate programs. I’m glad I didn’t know that prior to taking his class. I think I would’ve run away. He taught public speaking in a way I’d never thought about it before. Instead of teaching it as a performance art, trying to train us to act like polished public speakers, he taught what I would later reframe as a dialogue model of public speaking. The philosophy is that public speaking at its best looks a lot like dialogue at its best. If we think about our best conversations, how does that translate into this one-to-many form? That was a new way of thinking about public speaking for me. I really responded well to it. It gave me voice, and the metric shifted from a perfect voice, which I knew I didn’t have, to “How can I develop good ideas through my own voice? How can I not just act like a credible, confident public speaker, but become one?” That completely shifted my career goals. I decided to become a speech and English secondary education major. I taught high school for a year after my undergraduate work, and at the end of that first year I got a call from that first speech professor, Bob R. Derryberry, to see if I wanted to come help him coach the speech and debate program at that school. I came back to be his assistant coach. Fast forward a few years later, and I was the chair of the department there.

How do ancient rhetorical traditions factor into the curriculum of Speech 20?

JC: In the course, we read Aristotle and we learn some philosophies of Cicero and Quintilian. So we have this direct application of how rhetoric was being talked about and how rhetoric was being taught back in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. The way Aristotle was talking about speech then is how most modern public speaking courses are designed now. You don’t just study rhetoric as this monolithic whole, you study rhetoric as the synthesis of the smaller arts: the art of invention, of discovering your ideas and gathering your research and finding your argument. Style, memory, familiarity, delivery. That’s the way Aristotle was talking about rhetoric, and that’s the way Compton’s talking about it too. The difference, I think, is that we have moved from this performance model into a dialogue model. So it’s not just developing an argument for what I want to say because I want to say it. It’s respecting the audience enough to see our arguments through their eyes.

What is inoculation theory and why is it interesting to you?

JC: I love this theory. Inoculation theory, in short, is a theory and explanation for how our attitudes, our beliefs and our opinions can become more resistant to change in the same way that our bodies become more resistant to viruses. In a typical flu shot, we are injected with a weakened version of the flu virus. It’s weak enough that our body is able to fight it off. We develop these resistance processes, then later when we encounter the flu we are able to resist it. This social psychologist named William McGuire, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, discovered that the same thing happens with persuasive arguments. If we encounter weakened versions before we encounter stronger versions of an argument on an issue, we develop resistance to those stronger arguments. We think more carefully and more deeply about them. We understand more about why we believe what we believe. That develops a much more robust position. It reminds me of dialogue because in the most common way, the prototypical inoculation message, is what’s also called a “two-sided message.” Not just telling the audience once side of the story, but giving them multiple perspectives. Raising a counterargument: “Some people will say this. However, I believe this.” That is how you weaken the counterargument and create an inoculation message. It’s so much more powerful and effective than a one-sided message approach where we’re simply telling people one side of the story. You can look at the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign of the 1980s, which was a very one-sided message: It said “Just say no” but not to what. More developed and better strategies later looked more like inoculation where people would go into school systems and say, “Here’s what your peers are going to tell you when they try to get you to smoke this cigarette. Here are some refutations of that.” What’s really cool about inoculation is that resistance isn’t restricted to the specific counterarguments that you raise. It actually creates a blanket protection against, theoretically, any argument. I love this theory because we can develop strong and robust health campaigns to protect healthy attitudes, and we can use it in educational settings. I found that you can inoculate against temptations to engage in academic misconduct and plagiarism. I’ve done some work with some colleagues at the University of Western Australia in Perth to find that we can inoculate against negative public speaking fears. The options are limitless when it comes to inoculation theory. And at its core is this theory of dialogue which is the core of my pedagogy and teaching philosophy, too.

The course description of Speech 20 mentions the unique challenges of contemporary public speaking. What are some of those challenges and how should they be handled by a speaker?

JC: I think one of the most unique challenges is that the philosophy I was talking about earlier, where public speaking looks more like acting and monologue, is the way a lot of people think about public speaking. There’s this misperception that audiences should be passive and just take in the information of a speech. Speech doesn’t have to be that way. It can be so much more dynamic. It can be life changing. The audience can be actively involved. Maybe not explicitly, but at least at an internal level we can give them arguments that resonate with them so they can be actively engaged in the arguments. That sounds to me a lot like critical thinking, which is something that I know we’re talking quite a bit about recently with the rise of fake news. There’s this idea that when we engage, when we use central, systematic processing, we make better decisions. I think this dialogue model to public speaking is what leads to that. That’s what promotes this type of active, central thinking. So that’s one of the big challenges that I think we have.

Are there any misconceptions about public speaking that you try to correct in Speech 20?

JC: The one that I’ve mentioned a few times now, this idea that speech is all performance, and it’s acting like a good public speaker as opposed to actually becoming one. I guess some people would hope that there’s a set recipe for good public speaking, but that’s not how public speaking works. We learn that quite quickly in our study of public speaking. Instead of trying to learn the simple “10 steps to sound like a good public speaker,” we grapple with speech as an academic discipline, so we become rhetorical critics. We study theory and conceptual models and use a lot of mindful reflection to become scholars of speech, which is so much more powerful than just sounding like a good public speaker. That’s the other big misconception, that speech is simply skills training. We could limit it that way, but I’m glad Dartmouth doesn’t. We teach speech as an academic discipline like the others, that it has its own research and theory. This is a course that enacts active learning principles. We learn speech by actually doing it.

If you could suggest one thing to a public speaking novice, what would it be?

JC: There are few things that will set a speaker apart more than authenticity. When audiences feel like a speaker is talking with them, when it feels one-on-one even though it is one to many, there’s no substitute for that. We can try to act authentic, but that fails. Audiences see through that. It isn’t just that an audience feels like the speaker is talking with them, the speaker actually is. The idea of speaking with an audience is dialogic and special. It’s something that can’t be replaced. So that’s one of the things that we aim for in this class.

Why is public speaking important in the modern world?

JC: Let me contextualize it then broaden back a bit. I spend a lot of my time thinking about public speaking and the liberal arts education. I was talking with someone recently where I said liberal arts education is dialogue. It is about working through really difficult issues, discovering new ways of thinking about knowledge itself, offering good answers and asking even better questions. It is collaboration. If speech is dialogue, then speech is a core of the liberal arts, too. It is one of the original liberal arts, actually. In general, I can think of no profession, endeavor, problem or solution that can’t be assisted by better public speaking. Dialogue is hard, but dialogue is the answer. So I see the relevance of public speaking in everything.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.