Personal and Professional Knowledge

Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t. – Pete Seeger

Professional public speakers are generally called upon to address a topic on which they are considered an expert. You may not feel like an expert in the area of your speech at this time, but you should consider whether you have any preexisting knowledge of the topic that might assist in crafting your speech. Do not be afraid to draw on your own experience to enhance the message.

Personal Testimony

Walter Fisher argues that humans are natural storytellers. Through stories people make sense of their experiences, and they invite others to understand their lived reality as part of a community.[1] One compelling story that you can offer is your personal testimony. Although you are not a recognized authority on the topic, you can invite the audience to understand your firsthand experience. Offering your testimony within a speech provides an example of your point, and it enhances your credibility by demonstrating that you have experience regarding the topic. Additionally, personal testimony can enhance your speech by conveying your insight and emotion regarding the topic, making your speech more memorable.[2][3] For example, if you are giving a speech on the importance of hunting to the local culture, you might explain how the last buck you shot fed your family for an entire season.

Since personal testimony refers to your experience, it is easy to assume that you can offer it with little preparation. However, psychologists have found that as people tell their stories they relive the experience.[4] As you relive the experience, your tendency will be to enrich the story with detail and emotion, which is part of what makes it memorable, but this practice may also make the story too long and distract from your point. If you plan to use personal testimony in your speech, practice the story to make sure that it makes the appropriate point in the time you have.

If you do not have personal experience with the topic, you may seek out other forms of lay testimony to support your point. Lay testimony is any testimony based on witnesses’ opinions or perceptions in a given case.[5] For example, if you are giving a speech about Occupy Wall Street, but you have not experienced one of their protests, you may choose to include statements from a protestor or someone who identifies with the goals of the movement.



“Interviews” by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. CC-BY-SA.

Lay testimony can offer insight into the past and into areas where individual sentiments are relevant, but if you are called upon to make predictions regarding the future or speak to an issue where you have little relevant experience, expert testimony may provide more convincing support.[6] Expert testimony comes from a recognized authority who has conducted extensive research on an issue. Experts regularly publish their research findings in books and journals, which we will discuss later in this chapter, but you may need more information from the expert in order to substantiate your point. For example, if you were giving a speech about how to prepare for a natural disaster, you might interview someone from the Red Cross. They could tell you what supplies might be necessary for the specific types of disasters that are likely in your region. Interviews give people the chance to expand on their published research and offer their informed perspective on the specific point you are trying to make.

My basic approach to interviewing is to ask the basic questions that might even sound naive, or not intellectual. Sometimes when you ask the simple questions like “Who are you?” or “What do you do?” you learn the most. – Brian Lamb

If you are seeking an interview with an expert, it is best to arrange a time and place that works for them. Begin the process with a respectful phone call or email explaining who you are and why you are contacting them. Be forthcoming regarding the information you are seeking and the timeline in which you are working. Also be flexible about the format for your interview. If you can meet in person, that is often ideal because it gives you the chance to get to know the person and to ask follow up questions if necessary. A good alternative to an in person interview is a video call using a service such as Skype. These services are often free to both callers and allow you to see and hear the person that you are interviewing. If neither of these options will work, a phone call or email will do. Keep in mind that while an email may seem convenient to you, it will likely require much more time from the expert as they have to type every answer, and they may not be as forthcoming with information in that format.

Before the interview, write down your questions. When you talk to someone, it is easy to get caught up in what they are saying and forget to focus on the information you need. Once you begin the interview work to establish rapport with the person you are interviewing. You can foster rapport by demonstrating that you respect their viewpoint, by taking turns in your interactions, by allowing them to finish their thought without interrupting, and by giving them the freedom to use their preferred forms of expression.[7] As you ask each question, take note of their response and ask for clarification or to follow up on information you did not anticipate. If you plan to record the interview, ask for permission in advance. Even if you are given permission to record, take paper and a writing utensil along to make back-up notes in case your recording device fails. When the interview is complete, thank the person and check to see whether they would welcome further contact to follow up if necessary.

After the interview, review your notes for insight that substantiates your specific purpose statement. Look for quotes that bring together the person’s expertise with their reflections on the topic you are addressing. It is likely that you will gain more knowledge from the interview than you can possibly include in a short speech. Work to synthesize the main points from the interview into a coherent statement supporting your topic. Remember to be careful about properly quoting exact phrases that the person used. Even if you paraphrase, properly cite the interview and credit the expert for all of the ideas they shared with you.

  1. Fisher, W. R. (1984). Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communication Monographs, 51, pp.1–22.
  2. Beebe, S.A. & Beebe, S.J. (2003). Public speaking: An audience centered approach. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
  3. Parse, R. R. (2008). Truth for the moment: Personal testimony as evidence. Nursing Science Quarterly, 21(1), pp. 45–48.
  4. Gladding, S.T. & Drake Wallace, M.J. (2010). The potency and power of counseling stories. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 5, pp. 15–24.
  5. Federal Rules of Evidence. (2012). Federal Evidence Review. Retrieved from:
  6. Beebe & Beebe 2003
  7. Lindolf, T.R. & Taylor, B.C. (2002). Qualitative communication research methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.