Public speaking and conversation difference and similarities

Public Speaking and Conversation – 13 Differences and Similarities

When it comes to Public Speaking and Communication, there are many differences and similarities. This distinction is not easy to make unless you really study it. In this article I discuss the 13 main differences and the 13 main similarities between the two.

Key Definitions:

Orality is the communication done with words uttered by one’s mouth
Public Speaking Is a formal and deliberate method to inform, entertain or influence a group of people in a public gathering.
Conversation Is an informal and spontaneous form of communication between two or more people who exchange information such as news, ideas and feelings usually in a private setting.
Types of Orality and the Difference between public speaking and conversation
Types of Orality/Oral Communication as depicted by Fiona Rosette Clarke (2019)

“Public speaking has always defied the traditional distinction established in linguistic scholarship between oral and written language. While it is most often scripted in written form, it cannot be placed on a par with writing. Conversely, it is spoken language, but cannot be assimilated with conversation”

Fiona Rossette Crake (2019), Public Speaking and the New Oratory


  1. Related Questions
  2. What are the differences between Public Speaking and Conversation?
    1. Structured vs Unstructured
    2. Formal Language vs Informal Language
    3. Deliberate vs Spontaneous
    4. Clearly Defined roles vs Fluid roles
    5. Time-bound vs Non-time-bound
    6. Event Driven vs Channel Driven
    7. Need based vs Situational
    8. Concentrated Responsibility vs Distributed Responsibility
    9. Monologue vs Dialogue
    10. Skill to Interact vs Obligation to Interact
    11. Listening one way vs listening both ways
    12. Public Audience vs Private Audience.
    13. Method of delivery
  3. What are the similarities between Public Speaking and Conversation?
    1. What you say is tailored to your audience
    2. Maintaining etiquette
    3. It must be sensible
    4. Being meaningful makes the difference between good and great
    5. Success relies on how engaging it is
    6. Storytelling is an important skill
    7. They both Use verbal and para-verbal communication (Multimodal)
    8. Both public speaking and conversation involve adapting to listeners’ feedback.
    9. Emphasis on Eye contact
    10. Humour is always welcome
    11. Emphasis on audience-speaker similarities
    12. You can get paid for it
    13. Both fall under the same category of fear – Glossophobia.

Related Questions

Is a business meeting a conversation?

A business meeting is not a conversation. The main difference between a business meeting and a conversation is that a business meeting is formal, and a conversation is informal.

Is an interview a conversation?

An interview and a conversation are two different things. An Interview, just like a business meeting, is formal and structured while a conversation is informal and unstructured. In addition, interviews sometimes can be public and broadcasted through media outlets to be viewed by others. In contrast, conversations are exclusive to those who are a part of it.

Is a round table discussion a conversation?

A round table discussion is again a formal discussion, which has a clear agenda, and maybe scripted. On the other hand conversations are informal and may rarely have an agenda.

Is a Debate a form of Public Speaking?

A debate is not a form of Public Speaking, it is in fact a very formal and structured argument. Debates and Public Speaking have many similarities but the main difference is that, Public Speaking gives center stage to one individual, while a Debate gives center stage to the two individuals or groups having the dialogue.

The main difference in a conversation compared to a business meeting,an interview or a round table discussion is that a conversation is informal while the others are formal.

All these skills, however, are related. Therefore, one of the benefits of mastering public speaking is that you will get better at Debate, discussions, business meetings, interviews and even conversations.

Differences between Public Speaking and Conversation

  1. Structured vs Unstructured

The main difference between Public Speaking and Conversation is that, the former is Structured, while the latter is Unstructured.

A topic for a speech is predetermined by the speaker or by the event. In other words, there is a clear objective that a speaker must achieve in the end. In order to achieve this objective a speaker will use an obvious opening, body and conclusion with a logical flow to transition from one idea to another.

On the other hand, conversations are free-flowing and devoid of structure. The topic of conversation may or may not be set, and can usually meander into unrelated territory as the conversation progresses.

  1. Formal Language vs Informal Language: 

Between Public Speaking and Conversation, the language used is relatively formal in Public Speaking. 

While modern public speakers tend to use informal language and colloquialism to connect with the audience better, the language is still much more refined compared to a normal conversation.

Take the following example. While you can see colloquialism in both the speech and the conversation, language used in the speech is refined and relatively formal.

Diana: Hey! Did you hear about the riots in Egypt?
Becky: Yeah! I did… It’s Crazy dude!
I’m sure you heard about the riots in Egypt. It’s crazy to say the least.
  1. Deliberate vs Spontaneous: 

Public Speaking is deliberate, Practiced ahead of time and carefully planned. Conversation is spontaneous and the complete opposite.

When delivering a speech, the speaker will usually have time to write, edit and practice the speech. A speech may be delivered by reading the script, dictating a memorized script, or by using an extemporaneous method.Even in extemporaneous speech – a speaker carefully and deliberately chooses his or her words to deliver a predetermined message.

In contrast, a conversation does not have a pre-planned script and is not rehearsed.

  1. Clearly Defined roles vs Fluid roles: 

Public speaking has a formally recognized speaker who takes center stage and an audience who is focused on that one speaker. 

In conversation, the focus varies from one person to the other. While one person could be dominating the conversation at one instance – another could easily steal it.

  1. Time-bound vs Non-time-bound: 

Speeches are time bound. Their timing is determined in advance while Conversations can be brief or may never end.

A speaker who prepares for a 5 minute speech on one topic, will prepare much differently for a 45 minute speech on the same topic. These time limits are assigned to the speaker ahead of time – which influences what will be said and how deep the speaker will dwell into the topic.

In a conversation, however, a participant can go on and on if they so desire. Setting aside that a person may not have any friends after a 1 hour rant, a conversation has no agreed time boundaries. You go on until you’re done…or until everyone leaves.

  1. Event Driven vs Channel Driven: 

For Public Speaking to happen you need an event, for a Conversation to happen you need a channel.

For example – conversations can happen face to face, over the phone, via text, via chat groups, social media or via email. As long as there is a channel of communication, a conversation can be established.

For Public Speaking to happen, however, it requires an event with a live public gathering. Because, though you can speak to a friend over text, you can not text a speech.

  1. Need based vs Situational: 

Conversations are situational. You may have a conversation with someone merely to pass time, to be polite or to build a relationship. When the circumstance calls for it, you’d strike up a conversation with a person or a group, and nobody needs to give you permission for this.

On the contrary, public speaking happens due to a recognised need. There is always a formal invitation to speak and uninvited speakers are awkwardly thrown off stage (i.e – Kanye West at the VMA awards 2009). Usually, this invitation would be to an event such as a wedding, a funeral, a conference, or a ceremony that warrants a speech. Where there is no need for a speech it may never happen.

  1. Concentrated Responsibility vs Distributed Responsibility: 

When delivering a speech, there is a formal responsibility on the speaker to produce worthwhile content. You should either be truthful, entertaining or motivating. You must be prepared and engaging. You must stand out. These are big responsibilities, and they give all the more reason for a person to fear public speaking. 

In a conversation, however, one person isn’t formally responsible to keep a conversation going or to keep it interesting. The responsibility is distributed. In a conversation, it is also not essential for information to be factual or reliable. Hearsay and research are both welcome while verifying sources is optional. It is up to everyone involved in the conversation to make it worth the while. Additionally, you’re forgiven for mistakes in communication or a lack of knowledge in a particular topic, it’s all part of being in conversation. Therefore, the responsibility one person has to what is being said is relatively low.

  1. Monologue vs Dialogue

In Public speaking, only one person speaks. While the speaker may adopt a style that mimics a dialogue with the audience, it’s pretty much one person doing most of the talking.

In a conversation all participants engage in a dialogue. At times you may be the listener, at times you may be the one talking.

  1. Skill to Interact vs Obligation to Interact: 

A conversation thrives on interaction. Once something is said there’s always a responsibility upon the other person to reciprocate, verbally or non verbally, or else the conversation dies until you hear crickets chirp. It isn’t a passive activity. Because you are obliged to interact, in a conversation, it is hard not to pay attention.

On the flipside, Interaction between the speaker and the audience, during Public Speaking, is optional. Speakers control this as per their comfort. There is no obligation upon the audience to react or respond to what a speaker is saying either. It is up to the speaker to use his/her skill to get them engaged – and this responsibility is purely upon the speaker. Some speakers use games, rhetorical devices, Q&A sessions and other techniques to encourage interaction while others keep reading off a script with little to no effort.

The worst thing to do in public speaking, however, is to not encourage interaction. This will send your audience to sleep faster than horse tranquilizer in their coffee.  It’s easy to be distracted when you have nothing to contribute. That’s why it is a skill of a good public speaker to keep you engaged even if you have no obligation to reciprocate or interact.

  1. Listening one way vs listening both ways:

Listening happens by both parties in an effective conversation. In a speech, very little listening is done by the speaker and almost all of the listening is done by the audience.

  1. Public Audience vs Private Audience. 

Public speaking happens in public. It’s in the name itself. Public Speaking also has a primary and secondary audience. The Primary is the live one he or she is speaking to, and the secondary is the audience that would view the recording of it (audio-video recorded or transcribed). With the advent of youtube, and social media – Public Speakers now understand that after they are done speaking an audience is most probably going to view their message. Speakers sometimes give more focus to the secondary audience than they do to the live one.

This is not true for a conversation which is exclusive to one audience. Even at a party – two people who are talking to each other in a corner will hush as soon as someone foreign joins them. Because, conversations are naturally insulated among the few who have permission to listen in.

  1. Method of delivery:

Public speaking would have a physical or virtual stage for the speaker, a conversation happens with both or all in an equal stage/setting.

Public speaking may use visual aids to assist the point, which is unnecessary for conversation.

Colourful emotions are premeditated in public speaking, where it is more theatrical and emphasis is placed on the full visual experience to the audience. Conversations however, emotions are elicited as a reaction to what the other is saying.

Linguistic distractions are welcome in a conversation “like, um, You know what im sayin?”. Filler words such as this is discouraged in formal oratory.

What are the Similarities between Public Speaking and Conversation

  1. What you say is tailored to your audience

for effective conversation and public speaking, you must know your audience. What you say and what you do not say must be curated to suit those who are present, their interests, their culture and level of comprehension.

  1. Maintaining etiquette

formalities, conventions, friendliness, politeness, nuances based on culture and politics is essential when it comes to speech and conversation.

  1. It must be sensible 

Communication of any form needs to make sense. If not, it becomes useless and incomprehensible.

  1. Being meaningful makes the difference between good and great

A Speech with meaning, and a conversation with meaning makes a great impact. People remember it for a long time.

  1. Success relies on how engaging it is 

a good conversation or speech is deeply engaging. They move us emotionally and we end up wanting more.

  1. Storytelling is an important skill 

Whether you’re speaking in public or having a conversation, good storytelling is a great tool to engage your audience. You will find them attentive, and truly interested in what you have to say. Because stories help establish an emotional connection.

  1. They both Use verbal and para verbal communication (Multimodal)

In both the expression of meaning comes not only through words that are pronounced, but also the vocal variety and body language (hand gestures, facial expressions, pauses, pitch, eye contact..etc)

  1. Both public speaking and conversation involve adapting to listeners’ feedback.

In both instances you must feed off the non-verbal or verbal energy of the audience and constantly tweak your approach on your feet to sustain interest. This is mostly done unconsciously in a conversation but consciously in a public speaking setting. 

  1. Emphasis on Eye contact 

without eye contact, you lose your audience, whether it is a conversation with one person or a speech to a thousand people.

  1. Humour is always welcome 

Who doesn’t want to have a good laugh? You can be the center of attention in a conversation by cracking jokes or be a sought after public speaker with good comedy skills.

  1. Emphasis on audience-speaker similarities 

a great conversationalist will make you feel like they are like you. Because we like people who are like us, it’s a great way to connect with an audience. A public speaker will come to a common ground with the audience to establish rapport. This is the only way a lawyer can speak to an audience of engineers successfully or vice versa.

  1. You can get paid for it

Yes you can get paid to have conversations. Ever heard of customer service? Additionally there are enough people demanding a virtual friend to chat with. Public speakers on the other hand get paid to speak at events and thats great too.

  1. Both fall under the same category of fear – Glossophobia. 

Fear of public speaking and Fear of Conversation are related. Both stem from social anxiety disorder where people believe that speaking will bring upon themselves severe and harsh negative judgement from others.