Being a credible and ethical speaker

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Learning Objectives

After studying the chapter, students should be able to:

• Demonstrate the power of first impressions.

• List and differentiate among the five dimensions of speaker credibility.

• Show how public speakers can increase audience perceptions of their own credibility.

• Identify ways public speakers are obliged to be ethical.

• Demonstrate how speakers make decisions about behaving ethically when faced with ethical dilemmas.

• Identify common justifications that people give when deciding to lie.

Extended Chapter Outline

This chapter focuses on impression management, ethical obligations, and credibility issues.

I. The Power of First Impressions

People tend to form impressions quickly, on the basis of limited information. These early impressions are difficult to change.

A. The Process of Selective Perception

1. Perception refers to the process of making sense of or attaching meaning to some aspect of reality that has been apprehended by the senses.

2. Selective perception refers to choosing, selecting, and distorting all that people take in and assign meaning to.

3. Research shows that people perceive only a small number of traits to evaluate

one another and use this information to form detailed impressions; particularly important are salient characteristics, central traits that serve as a dominant attribute around which people construct a pattern of initial impressions.

4. The identification and evaluation of salient characteristics is closely tied to stereotypes that people hold toward certain characteristics of speakers and audience members.

B. The Impact of Stereotypes

1. Frequently, audiences form potentially inaccurate prejudicial impressions based solely on a speaker’s co-cultural identity or physical appearance. For instance, research revealed that people who are made up attractively are also rated as more persuasive than when those same people are made to look unattractive. The same audience, though, felt that the unattractive speakers were more credible than the attractive ones.

2. Body shape appears to influence how people perceive others. In one study, heavy people were rated as warmhearted, mature, and self-reliant, while thin people were rated as tense, ambitious, suspicious, and stubborn.

3. Height affects first impressions; tall people are perceived as credible, successful, and powerful, while short people are not.

4. Skin color, ethnicity, sexual preference, and gender orientation all affect how we are judged by others.

C. The Process of Self-Presentation

1. The self refers to the pattern of beliefs, meanings, and understandings concerning our own nature and worth as human beings that each of us has developed through communication with others.

2. We present information about ourselves through what we say, how we say it, how we dress, and so on. The presentation of self, then, involves encoding and sending verbal and nonverbal messages to others about what kind of person you are.

3. It is possible to strategically communicate so as to create a particular set of impressions. This effective speaker self-presentation has been referred to as “impression management.”

II. Establishing Speaker Credibility

Speaker credibility refers to the degree to which the audience feels that a speaker is believable and trustworthy and that the messages he or she is transmitting are truthful. The degree to which a speaker is perceived as credible can vary from one context to another. Five major factors contribute to speaker credibility: competence, trustworthiness, composure, sociability, and extroversion.

A. Demonstrate Competence

1. Audience members demand that the speaker know more about the topic than they do. Competence has little to do with intelligence; instead, it refers to how much valid information the speaker is perceived to command.

2. Speakers must research and study their subject in order to demonstrate competence.

3. Speakers must pay attention to how they present the information as well. A common mistake speakers make is oversimplifying the information. Speakers can use a variety of tactics to increase audience perceptions of speaker competence.

a. Use precise language.

b. Include oral footnotes.

c. Admit your ignorance.

d. Look competent.

e. Arrange a validating introduction.

B. Generate Trust

Audience members expect speakers to be trustworthy and tune out those who appear to be otherwise.

C. Exhibit Composure

1. Speakers are considered composed when they appear calm, cool, and collected before a large audience.

2. Audiences appreciate a speaker who demonstrates that he or she is in control of the situation and/or responds with apparent confidence and control. Speakers who are unable to control fear and anxiety suffer in terms of audience perceptions of composure.

3. One strategy for appearing self-assured is to be prepared to speak, which helps reduce the number of nervous mannerisms.

4. A good speaker must practice looking relaxed and confident.
D. Communicate Sociability

1. When an audience finds a speaker likeable, they are more willing to listen and to give him or her the benefit of the doubt. Sociability has the power to override or soften the negative effects of speakers’ alienating qualities.

2. Communicating sociability relies on nonverbal immediacy behaviors, ones that communicate physical or psychological closeness. Some nonverbal immediacy behaviors include maintaining a relaxed posture, smiling, and giving frequent eye contact. Verbal ones include referring to audience members by name and saying something nice about their location, history, or culture. Sociable speakers demonstrate in a variety of ways that they are interested in their audience and genuinely pleased to be speaking.

E. Display Extroversion

1. Extroversion is a speaker characteristic that refers to the degree to which someone is outgoing, people-oriented, talkative, and gregarious.

2. Even if you are inclined to be introverted, you can learn to speak like an extrovert by expanding your gestures and showing enthusiasm, energy, and dynamism.

F. A Note of Caution: A speaker’s credibility can suffer if he or she is perceived as having too much of any of the five dimensions of credibility. With practice and experience, speakers can find the right mix of verbal and nonverbal messages to maximize their credibility.

III. Being Perceived as an Ethical Public Speaker

A. The Ethical Obligations of Public Speakers

Modern thinking about the ethics of public speaking has been strongly influenced by the writings of Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician and orator who lived in the first century a.d. He defined a good speaker as one who is a good person—someone who is virtuous and ethical. Over time, certain standard practices have been identified as important to ethical speaking.

1. Present evidence truthfully, in an objective and unbiased manner.

2. Reveal your sources.

3. Distinguish between opinion and fact. If hypothetical examples are given, they should be identified as such.

4. Respond to questions frankly. Speakers should admit they do not know an answer. Evasive answers are considered deceitful by audiences.

5. Respect diversity of argument and opinion.

6. Consider the probable effect of the speech.

7. Act responsibly when appealing to people’s emotions and values. Avoid evoking irrational, emotional responses when using persuasive appeals.

B. The Important Decisions Public Speakers Make

1. Decisions about ethical dilemmas

Ethical dilemmas are situations in which speakers have to choose between two or more alternative courses of action, each of which results in an ethical problem of some sort.

a. Ethical dilemmas involve values, or conceptions or beliefs about what is desirable.

b. Many public speaking situations may challenge a speaker’s inclination to be ethical.

c. Our primary values tend to influence our behavior as speakers.

2. Decisions about being culturally sensitive

Being culturally sensitive involves adapting language and behavior to the expectations of co-culturally diverse audiences. Speakers who consider the co-cultural makeup of their audience minimize the chances that their message will be misconstrued or misunderstood.
a. Some refer to the decision to be culturally sensitive in public speaking contexts as “political correctness”; however, there is no concrete meaning for this term.

b. From a politically moderate and constructive perspective, the decision to be culturally sensitive means being concerned about fairness, equity, and respect for all the co-cultures represented in our society and being willing to adopt appropriate conduct when communicating with culturally diverse audiences.

3. Decisions about lying

Lying can be defined as deliberately concealing or falsifying information with the intent to deceive or mislead.

a. Public speakers who intentionally and frequently lie operate from one or more insidious assumptions that decrease their ethical behavior.

b. Public speakers who lie “only occasionally” to their audiences justify their behavior differently from those who lie on a regular and frequent basis. They claim to lie in order to help or protect others or to benefit themselves.

c. The best advice for any public speaker is, don’t lie. Instead, go with the ethical alternative—tell the truth.

Classroom Exercises and Activities

1. Lead your class in a discussion of elected officials and their perceived credibility. Given the many challenges to President Bill Clinton’s credibility, ask students to compare and contrast him and other contemporary presidents in terms of credibility. Have students rate a particular president on the five dimensions of source credibility: trustworthiness, composure, competence, sociability, and extroversion. Which dimension is most important for political figures? Which is least important? Why? Does our understanding of a highly credible leader change or endure over time?

2. Have students role-play concrete ways they can look more credible to an audience. Assign students to groups, and have each group coach one member volunteer to demonstrate a particular (assigned) dimension of credibility to the class for one minute.

3. Have students form groups and identify interpersonal circumstances that justify lying. Then ask students to make a list of public speaking circumstances that might justify lying. In follow-up class discussion, ask students if lying is ever justified. When? Is it okay for someone to lie to them as long as he or she can justify the lie?

4. Preselect three class members and, together, construct a statement about each student that is false—for instance, “I once played a small role in a movie” (assuming that isn’t true for the particular student). Be sure the rest of the class isn’t aware that you’ve “conspired” with the chosen students (you may want to talk with them a class period in advance). Then ask all class members to reveal the most startling, outrageous, or interesting thing about themselves that they are willing to share. After each student has spoken, reveal to the class that three students have lied. Ask them to make guesses as to which students have told the lies and, ultimately, reveal the liars and explain the deception. Discussion should focus on what attributions and perceptions led class members to make the decisions they did. Was the class able to identify the “liars”?
Why or why not? What cues indicated who was lying? How can we detect lying in the public speaking context? (Note: This activity works best if used before students read and/or discuss the chapter.)

5. Have students complete the personal value and ethical dilemmas scales in the text.

Rely on the discussion questions that follow each instrument to stimulate interaction
in class.

Recommended Readings

Aufderheide, P. (Ed.). (1992). Beyond PC: Toward a politics of understanding. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf.

This anthology contains essays that attack political correctness, argue for it, describe particular PC-relevant case studies, and attempt to reach beyond the current conceptions of PC. Several pro- and anti-PC testimonials are also included. This fascinating book contains essays that are both emotional and rational—and highly informative.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

This classic book on self-presentation masterfully articulates in simple terms the essentials of the impression formation process. The book outlines the skills involved in guiding and controlling the responses others make when meeting someone.

Johannesen, R. L. (1990). Ethics in human communication (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

This book is a comprehensive review of the important ethical concerns in human communication. The author effectively discusses a variety of potential perspectives for making ethical decisions about communication. This book sensitizes the reader to the complexities and difficulties involved in evaluating communication ethics. It is useful for examining the ethical implications of all types of human understanding.

Stock, G. (1987). The book of questions. New York: Workman.

This book’s several hundred questions address important values, beliefs, and incidents we all face in life. Each question concerns a particular ethical dilemma whose answer requires making a sometimes painful yet always ethical choice between conflicting alternatives. Many of the questions asked are directly relevant to decisions involved in public speaking.

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