The 4 Main Objectives of Public Speaking (Dale Carnegie)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Public Speaking for Success" by Dale Carnegie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the various ways that public speaking can be used? How can you get clarity on what your next speech aims to accomplish?

Public speaking has the power to affect audiences in different ways. A presentation can provoke thought, motivate action, or elicit a lot of laughs. In Public Speaking for Success, Dale Carnegie identifies four main objectives of public speaking.

Keep reading to learn about these public speaking objectives and how each one wields its own kind of power.

The 4 Main Objectives of Public Speaking

Once you’ve chosen a topic and developed your ideas, think about the purpose of your speech. All speeches, Carnegie asserts, have one of four main objectives: 

  • To elucidate and educate
  • To persuade people of a position
  • To inspire people to take action
  • To captivate and entertain 

We’ll explain how to achieve each of these objectives of public speaking. (Shortform note: To help determine your speech’s objective, consider three things: What you want your speech to achieve for you, what you want it to get your audience to do, and what your core message is. Answer these three questions, and you’ll see whether you want to inform, persuade, inspire, or simply entertain.)

Regardless of your main objective, some strategies will always work. Carnegie emphasizes that you should always do the following:

  • Captivate yourself before you captivate the audience: Become so deeply interested in your ideas that the audience can’t help but pick up on your enthusiasm and conviction. (Shortform note: You don’t have to rely on just raw enthusiasm to interest your audience—Vanessa Van Edwards explains in Captivate that you can project confidence and likeability by using relaxed hand gestures, standing up straight with your chest out, and liberally making eye contact. Altogether, these small behaviors will subconsciously communicate to your audience that you’re worth listening to.)
  • Liberally repeat your key points: Carnegie explains that hearing an idea repeated often persuades people that it’s true. Be sure to vary your phrasing to obscure the repetitions and hold your audience’s attention. (Shortform note: Studies have also found that repetition can sway people’s decisions and opinions. For example, by simply repeating key points or phrases throughout a presentation in a business setting, speakers were able to sway the preferences of decision-makers.)
  • Favor concrete explanations: Concrete words illustrate ideas in a much “stickier” and more tangible way than abstract words. Compare the abstract statement, “he was seven feet tall,” with the more concrete, “he was so tall that his head scraped the ceiling!” (Shortform note: To better understand how effective this principle is, consider the viral video that illustrated Jeff Bezos’ multi-billion dollar fortune as grains of rice. With each grain of rice representing $100,000, Bezos’ entire fortune turned out as 53 pounds of rice—a shocking visual that puts wealth and the wealth gap into stark relief.)

Objective #1: Elucidate and Educate

Regardless of your objective, clarity is key—however, this is particularly true of speeches that seek to educate audiences about complex or important topics.

According to Carnegie, clarity is the speaker’s responsibility—not the audience’s. Put another way, consider it to be your fault if the audience can’t follow what you want to say. To ensure that you’re perfectly clear, use the following tactics:

  • Articulate your ideas succinctly. On the level of the sentence, revise each idea until the fluff is gone and the core point shines through. On the level of the speech, fit your argument to the time available—otherwise, you won’t be able to properly explain each idea.
  • Relate your points to familiar ideas. When explaining unfamiliar topics—say, AI chatbots—relate them to tangible, everyday ideas. For instance, you might explain tools like ChatGPT as well-learned research assistants with encyclopedic knowledge. 
  • Tailor your language to the audience. If you have a technical audience, feel free to use industry-specific jargon. If your audience is more general, use language plain enough that a child could understand.
  • Illustrate abstractions. Use charts, images, or graphs to clarify your points when explaining numbers, data, or other abstractions.
  • Recap your argument. Following long sections or the entirety of your speech, give summaries that refresh the main points for your audience.
How to Clarify Your Thinking

Carnegie’s ideas above largely handle the surface-level, or presentation, of your ideas—but you’ll also need to make sure that the ideas themselves are crystal clear. One way to achieve this is with investor Julian Shapiro’s process for developing clear, resonant ideas:

• Ask: “What do I really mean to say? What is the point, and how can I make it easy to understand?” Once you have a firm grasp of your ideas, you’ll find it easier to state them succinctly, illustrate them, make them familiar, and reiterate them strategically.
• Rewrite your idea using simple, short sentences—a 13-year-old should be able to understand them. Specifically, remove abstract words and use fewer ideas per sentence.

Contrary to Carnegie’s suggestion that you can use technical language with a specialized audience, Shapiro suggests always crafting your language to be understood by young, unspecialized listeners. However, that doesn’t mean the ideas need to be simple—just the way you phrase them. Using simple, easy-to-understand phrasing actually allows you to play with more complex ideas. So long as they’re explained in plain language, your audience will be able to follow your logic.

Objective #2: Persuade

When you want to persuade an audience of some position, Carnegie recommends that you use enthusiasm, force, and repetition (in addition to a well-formed argument) to fix your idea in their minds. This works because, according to Carnegie, people have a harder time finding smart objections to an idea than simply accepting it.

(Shortform note: Repetition is a common rhetorical strategy with great power, but it can fail if you repeat your points unskillfully. To avoid this, be sure to vary your phrasing and look for ways to stylize your ideas—such as by using poetic phrasing, alliteration, imagery, or other techniques. This will keep the idea interesting and help it stick in people’s minds without them noticing the repetition as easily.)

Carnegie says that, unless your ideas have obvious flaws, people will generally take you at your word. Given this, you can craft a persuasive speech by 1) repeatedly impressing your ideas upon the audience, and 2) actively addressing any doubts or objections. To these ends, Carnegie recommends these tactics: 

  • Speak with great enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is infectious and will spread from passionate speakers to their audiences. 
  • Find the flaws in your ideas. Think of any likely objections ahead of time, then address them in your speech to allay doubt. 
  • Quote authorities. Find quotes from well-known people that support your points—people will more quickly believe known experts. 
Above, Carnegie suggests singular ways to use pathos, logos, and ethos—or, respectively, appeals to emotion, reason, and authority. These aren’t the only ways you can put these appeals to good use. For example, in Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs offers the following suggestions:

Pathos: You could also appeal to shared values; religious or moral sentiments; or common fears, hopes, and dreams. Enthusiasm might not be appropriate for all of these cases.

Logos: To further strengthen the logic of your speech, you could analyze it for bias and logical fallacies. We all have cognitive biases—gaps or flaws in our brains’ ways of processing the world—that we often overlook. Acknowledging your own can help you determine whether they’ve warped the logic of your speech.

Ethos: You could also slip in a reference to your own relevant qualifications and education. If you don’t have any, you could also make reference to any connections you have to respected people—maybe someone from your family works in the field you’re speaking about or maybe a friend holds a high position related to your topic. 

Objective #3: Inspire Action

One of the most powerful things a speech can do is move people to action. Carnegie recommends a four-step process for achieving this objective:

  • Use a strong opening to get the audience’s attention (we’ll explain how below).
  • Earn the audience’s trust. Introduce yourself with key points about your background, experience, and qualifications. Then, speak sincerely and from your own experience, rather than using abstractions.
  • Make your argument. Introduce one idea at a time, and logically build each subsequent idea toward your conclusion. Then answer objections—as many as you can—to demonstrate that you aren’t afraid of scrutiny.
  • Appeal to people’s emotions, which drive us more than reason does. You can appeal to desires such as personal gain, safety, happiness, and self-esteem, or to moral or patriotic ideals, such as fairness, equality, liberty, and faith.
Make a Clear Call to Action

When making a speech that inspires action—commonly called a persuasive speech—your main goal is to build toward a powerful call to action just before the end of your speech. Carnegie’s points above will help you to get through the speech but don’t quite touch on the specifics of making the call to action itself. To do so, you’ll want to:

• Think about the types of people in your audience—thinkers, doers, highly connected people, and so on.
• Appeal to the motivations of those kinds of people—like getting things done, innovating new ideas, or spreading a new way of thinking.
• Communicate a clear vision of what taking action will accomplish and why it’s worth doing.

If you can also sum up that vision of inspired action with a poetic flourish or memorable turn of phrase, it’ll stick even better—something like Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Objective #4: Entertain and Inform

You don’t always have to educate, persuade, or inspire action—instead, Carnegie says you can speak just to entertain or inform an audience on an interesting topic. To that end, you can employ any technique we’ve discussed so far, as well as the following tactics:

  • Provide novelty. We all love to be amazed by new, unexpected information. For instance, you could present about the mushrooms that scientists found can digest plastic—relatable, yet novel. 
  • Appeal to people’s self-interest. How do your ideas matter to your audience? How do they affect their lives, ambitions, or fortunes?
  • Use human interest stories. People also love stories about other people—their triumphs, failures, struggles, and successes. Make just a few points and then spend most of your time illustrating them with stories and examples.

(Shortform note: Entertaining speeches are often given at special occasions, such as weddings or awards ceremonies. While they’re meant mainly to amuse, they still require preparation—don’t make the mistake of thinking such a speech is easy and you can wing it. To use Carnegie’s above strategies, think of the type of occasion you’ll speak at and the sort of audience you’ll have. Then, you can think of novel, interesting stories and ideas that provoke the right sort of emotion for the occasion—whether that’s laughter and good humor, drama and serious engagement, or celebratory sincerity.)

The 4 Main Objectives of Public Speaking (Dale Carnegie)

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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