Conflict and Civility in Public Speaking

Christopher Witt —  November 16, 2017

Great public speeches build on conflict — opposing ideas, values, or visions. But in today’s contentious environment, civility is essential.

In the past, I’ve argued that

Great speeches are born in conflict. They address matters of consequence, when the stakes are high. They are delivered with passion and they rouse passion in the audience.

The ingredients of a great speech are conflict, high stakes, passion.

Take the conflict out of a public speech and, more than likely, you’ll take the energy, excitement, and purpose out of it.

Think of it this way: If everyone agrees with what you’re proposing — if, in short, there’s no conflict, no disagreement, no opposition — you really have no reason to be speaking.

So, don’t shy away from conflict. Sharpen it. 

One of the best ways to highlight your idea is to contrast or juxtapose it to an opposing idea. “This, not that.”

But you have to be careful with conflict, because there is already too much acrimony — too little civility — in the public arena these days.

The point of a speech is to engage your audience in a conversation that allows them to change. To change their behavior, their thinking, or their feelings.

People will not change — at least, not in the way you want them to — if you make them feel angry, attacked, ridiculed, disrespected, or humiliated.

Public speaking, to be effective, must also be civil speaking. Respectful, courteous, considerate. 

Attack an idea all you want. Have at it. But don’t attack the people who hold that idea. And, above all, don’t attack anyone in your audience.

The more aggressively you attack an idea, the more courteously you have to speak.

In my opinion, the greatest speech in American history is Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. As the Civil War was winding down, Lincoln contrasted the two sides — the North and the South — and why they fought. Making the strongest possible case for the North’s position (preserving the Union while abolishing slavery), he refrained from demonizing the South. Throughout his speech, he spoke “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Civility comes across in the words you use, your tone of voice, your attitude.

Civility does not …mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.

– Mahatma Gandhi



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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to Conflict and Civility in Public Speaking

  1. Chris – great and timely blog post, as usual. In theory, I like the idea of increased civility toward the audience while sharpening the attack on the issue.

    But in practice, it sems that attacking others also works. Political smear ads are effective. Attacking your enemies (Hitler, Trump, the NFL protestors, “liberals”, “xxx-phobics”, etc) makes you feel even more devoted to your cause. So how do you rationalize the call for civility with the apparent success of these more caustic approaches?

  2. Bruce,

    You’re absolutely right. The lack of civility — making direct, cruel, deceitful, intentionally hurtful attacks on another person or class of people — can be very effective… in the short run. It can achieve your immediate goal.

    There are two problems with smear ads and vicious speeches. First, uncivil speech makes for an uncivil society, in which ultimately everyone suffers. Second, it makes the speaker less of a person. It is wrong, bad, unethical. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that’s reason enough to avoid it.

    Thanks for your comments.