It may seem odd to talk about tact in this angry era.  Or it may be that we need it more than ever.  The dictionary defines tact as “sensitivity in dealing with others,” and it comes from the Latin for “touch.”  Interesting that as touch has waned in our ever-more-virtual world, sensitivity in dealing with others has also waned.  In the business world, a handshake traditionally began a relationship, sealed a deal, or showed that the relationship had some continuity.  In the virtual era, all of that is less likely.

Touch and human connection go together.  Trolling is a virtual phenomenon, and one that is ever more common in this distant, disconnected age.  Perhaps if we required our politicians to spend more time shaking hands and generally being face to face, the sense of hostile, far-removed camps might be lessened.

What does tact look like in public speaking?  Speakers can’t shake hands with everyone in the audience, unless it’s very small.  They can’t even get into the personal space of everyone present.  Now, of course, as I’ve mentioned before, the presence of mirror neurons in our brains means that we can share the feeling of physical closeness with an entire audience by getting close to only a few people.

But the question remains:  what constitutes tact in public speaking?  Naturally enough, it depends on the occasion.  In fact, that’s one of the main ideas of tact – doing the appropriate thing on a particular occasion.  So what might be the right level of interaction for one audience might be very different for another.  And one sort of detail might be tactful in one setting and tactless in another.  We speak differently to children than we do adults, for example. and that’s usually a good thing.

Great public speaking requires the intersection of the message, the speaker, and the audience.  Even a great speaker misfires sometimes when those three requirements, like the stars, are not aligned.

Understanding how to put the three elements of a successful speech together is where tact comes into play.  A speaker needs to have the tact to understand what is right for a particular audience at a particular time.   But how do you exercise tact consistently when it varies from audience to audience?

Here’s a way to think more precisely about what tact means.

The speaker should begin with the assumption of openness to the audience, in order to bridge the divide between the two, and make a connection.  But to understand how to connect with a particular audience means knowing how that audience thinks, what it cares about, and what it both loves and fears.  Unless you understand what the emotional truth of an audience is, you can’t connect with it successfully as a speaker.

And so speakers should listen to their audiences.  That may not mean that the audience does a great deal of talking. But it does mean that the speaker needs to research the audience thoroughly beforehand in order to understand its hopes and fears.  And further that the speaker be prepared to observe the audience’s reaction at each step of the speech, ready to vary the approach depending on what she sees.  So if a speaker can maintain an open stance, find connection, and listen to her audience, then she is well on the way to being able to deliver a tactful presentation.

I would (tactfully) suggest that we need more tact, not less, in our public speaking today.




  1. Excellent post, Nick! I’m still working on the timing of my speeches as I interact with the audience – especially allowing time for their responses like laughter, good-natured groaning, or oohing and ahhing. When practicing, do you build in pauses to allow for the response?

    1. Hi, Lynn –yes, you absolutely have to. With practice, you can begin to control the length of audience response, tamping it down when you want to move on with body language.

  2. Thank you for an excellent piece. My experience reflects your comments. Knowing the audience is a fundamental ingredient. It is frustrating to be thrust into a public speaking situation without warning and with the expectation that you will capture the audience. It is possible but unlikely.

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