A Guide for New Public Speaking Teachers:
Building Toward Success



 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Introduction

Teaching public speaking is not rocket science. Rocket science is simpler. It relies on fixed formulas and predictable physical laws and conditions. By contrast, as a public speaking instructor you will deal with human beings learning an ancient art form through which the course of history has been fashioned and refashioned. People have been teaching others to speak publicly for 5,000 years or more. Therefore, as you prepare to teach, you join an ancient tradition in the academy. You may find yourself teaching public speaking with or without broad speaking experience yourself, with or without teaching experience in a college classroom, and with or without a deep theoretical foundation in the field of communication. You may teach the course in any of a number of various instructional circumstances. But whatever the teaching circumstance, your approach to the classroom, your understanding of the special challenges presented by public speaking, and your knowledge of available support will be crucial to your effectiveness.

As you begin, remember that students are resilient. Speakers, even inexperienced ones, are inclined to find their own voice if given the opportunity, including a favorable learning environment, good reasons and good reasoning to accompany their practice of the art, and high expectations from their instructor. Also remember that you must find your own voice as the instructor in your classroom, just as your students must find their voices as speakers. Finally, never forget that you are preparing to teach a basic public speaking course. I was privileged to hear Carroll Arnold, a distinguished communication scholar and major contributor to the development of the discipline, share his wisdom with new public speaking instructors in the twilight of his life. His most memorable remarks called for simplicity. He explained that each semester he spent teaching the course, he aimed at only three learning objectives for students: (1) to organize their messages; (2) to adapt their messages to the audience; (3) to speak extemporaneously. Your objectives may vary, but basics, not details, will lead to effectiveness. Students can make significant progress in their public speaking knowledge and ability when you stick to the basics.

Approach to the Classroom: A Teacher/Scholar Model

You have choices about your orientation toward the classroom. On one hand, you may regard teaching undergraduates as an evil necessary to achieving your scholarly goals. On the other hand, you may regard yourself as an educator who works in different modes but always with the same basic calling, whether in the classroom, library, or study. Practically speaking, communication scholars rarely pursue their research to the exclusion of teaching. Some professors consider teaching introductory courses a waste of time and an unwelcome diversion from their scholarship. However, the best seek out connections between their scholarship and how they teach every course, including the basic public speaking course. Whether you choose to see teaching and scholarship as mutually exclusive activities or as connected and integrated modes of the same vocation, your choice will be reflected in your attitude and performance as a public speaking teacher. The remainder of this teaching manual assumes the second view--a teacher/scholar model—and expects you to be constantly exploring relevant connections between your research and the courses you teach. Make the classroom a site where you can incorporate what you are learning, explore and test emerging thought, and generate new questions through the readings, activities, and assignments you select for the course. As you begin to accomplish the integration of your teaching and scholarship, the quality of each should improve, as should the learning experience of your students.

The Special Challenges of the Public Speaking Course

Reflect on the basic public speaking class as it was taught at the college or university where you did your bachelor's degree; think over the variety of challenges presented by the course. As an instructor, you will need to take stock of these challenges and prepare yourself to address them. First of all, on many campuses public speaking is a requirement. Therefore, so many people take the course that their expectations, informed by the student culture, may rival the expectations set by the department and instructor. Most commonly, students expect to get a good grade in public speaking with a minimal amount of effort. First of all, they know they are taking an introduction to public speaking, an introductory course not ordinarily used to screen out all but the best and the brightest students. Second, many students in the course are not communication majors. They may have a mistaken tendency to view communication as a less serious field of study than their own. Finally, since so many people are required to take public speaking—on some campuses public speaking is a graduation requirement for all students—the difficulty of the course and how to get a good grade in it are part of the campus lore. Not every student will know these factors on the first day of class, but many will find out from talking to friends and acquaintances what to expect from public speaking.

Regardless of expectations, most students come to the course seriously under-prepared, especially compared to their preparation for other introductory courses. From kindergarten on, formal education is primarily an exercise in literacy training: learning to read, write, and figure. Less than half of your students are likely to have had a high school course in public speaking. Many will have performed token oral assignments in English class or some other subject, but without much in the way of systematic training. Some will have public speaking experience. But take a moment to compare how long they have been writing and reading sentences, paragraphs, essays, and books with the corresponding time devoted to critical listening and skill development in presentations of spoken language. Education has made them well acquainted with the written word, but the same education has neglected the spoken word. You will have few exceptions to this rule, which means that you will be teaching college-level literate minds who have a lot of catching up to do in their oral skill development.

You will introduce students to oral patterns of thought and language, arts quite foreign to many literate people, at least in an educational context. Their initial inclination will be to write out a speech as if it were an essay, and then read it to the class or memorize it for delivery. When you ask students to speak extemporaneously, you are asking them to awaken latent cognitive skills and develop patterns of thought that they may admire in other speakers but believe to be personally unattainable. Literacy skills may assist in learning about public speaking and in researching speeches. But the design and performance of their presentations must be grounded in remembering and producing the spoken word without memorization, and in understanding how listeners receive the spoken word versus the written word.

As a result, instructors may be tempted to offer a simplistic course oriented toward practice alone, devoting most class sessions to speeches and speaking exercises. Even with minimal instruction, many people will improve their speaking skills dramatically by being forced to speak for a grade a number of times in succession. But when the primary objective becomes making inexperienced speakers feel more comfortable in front of groups, we rob students of the knowledge they need to integrate performance and theory, the why behind the how. The aim of any public speaking course should be to equip students with integrated knowledge and skill in the art, so that they can continue to advance as speakers long after completing the course.

Even when we strike a good balance between instruction and student speaking assignments, speeches must be given in class, which puts instructional time at a premium. In other courses, we routinely assign major course projects to be completed outside of class. However, a well-balanced public speaking course still requires one third to one half of the class sessions for student speeches. Therefore, teachers must maximize the use of class sessions dedicated to instruction and utilize the inherent instructional opportunities in every speaking round.

Finally, in public speaking the instructor not only teaches content, but also models speaking performance. You bear a broader instructional burden in public speaking than in most courses, simply because students should scrutinize how you present yourself and the course material. Thankfully, you will not be expected to perform perfectly, but no public speaking instructor escapes the conscious realization that while we teach public speaking we employ the same skills in the process. If you lack speaking experience, concentrate on practicing what you are preaching. If you possess confidence as a public speaker, draw attention to transferable skills and strategies as you use them, and work to expand your proficiency every time you enter the public speaking classroom.

The Textbook and Supporting Materials for the Basic Course

Become intimately familiar with your textbook. A textbook is only as good as your ability to recognize and communicate its value to your students. Obviously, in a college classroom your task is to teach public speaking, not merely to review a textbook. But instructors who use a textbook wisely may better help their students overcome the lack of preparation, need for theoretical knowledge, and limited in-class instruction time mentioned previously. A good textbook serves as a touchstone for students throughout their public speaking experience.

In public speaking, you can weave the textbook into your course to cultivate student learning, without ever giving a "read your book!" speech in class. The role of the text in your class and how to use it most effectively will be discussed in detail in Chapter Three. For now, recognize that a good public speaking text can save you substantial amounts of preparation time and enhance the learning process for students inside and outside of class. Quality publishers like Allyn & Bacon provide extensive support to help you get the most out of the text in your course. This training manual, along with supplements for students that may be required or offered as optional materials, is only one example of the broad spectrum of resources available to assist your in-class instruction.

If you are using one of the following public speaking texts, Allyn & Bacon places a full range of materials at your disposal to enhance learning for students in your course:

Public Speaking: An Audience-Centered Approach, by Steven A. Beebe & Susan J. Beebe.
Public Speaking in the Age of Diversity, by Teri Kwal Gamble & Michael W. Gamble.
Mastering Public Speaking, by George L. Grice & John F. Skinner.
Public Speaking: Strategies for Success, by David Zarefsky.
Each of these texts has been used successfully nationwide. All four effectively cover the basic principles of public speaking, but do so with distinctive emphases and unique features. Chapter Five of this manual provides a grid of corresponding activities and exercises you can use to teach basic concepts and principles from each of the textbooks. Refer to the grid to find additional ideas or specific emphases available in Allyn & Bacon textbooks other than the one adopted for your course. The grid also identifies supplemental Allyn & Bacon resources like videos of student speeches, videos of famous speakers from the past and the present, and software designed to help students support and organize their speeches.

The Plan of . . . Building toward Success

The basics of public speaking have not changed dramatically over the centuries. However, as the emphases of textbooks reflect, approaches to the course vary widely. Each college or university generates a different cultural setting for the course and serves a different community. Chapter One leads you through an assessment of the context for your particular course and choices you must make concerning how to frame your course at this particular moment in the life of your department, institution, and the field of communication. You complete pre-term preparations in Chapter Two, which leads you from considering your multiple roles as an instructor, through how a textbook and other resources can support the course, to the structure and final syllabus to be distributed to students. Chapter Three provides a brief introduction to teaching methods and standard instructional components from which to build an effective class session. The special issues related to the first day of class are considered as are options and strategies for conducting speaking rounds, evaluating speeches, and testing in public speaking courses.

In Chapter Four, you will consider some routine problems new instructors face and common questions most of us have asked as we teach public speaking the first time, questions such as: "How do I balance my other responsibilities with my teaching?" "I don't have a bachelor's degree in communication; how can I best handle this assignment?" "How can I maintain a free speech environment regarding religious and ideological positions when I suspect that speakers will seriously offend other class members?" The grid or matrix of Allyn & Bacon resources appears in Chapter Five, after a list of the resources referenced on the grid and followed by a series of sample lesson plans for core topics taught in most public speaking courses. The book concludes with a provocative essay by Professor Roderick Hart, reprinted with permission from Communication Education, as a catalyst for your consideration and discussion among colleagues.


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