INTRODUCTION: It is an old saw that people fear public speaking more than they fear death. This fear creates a variety of nervous reactions in both young and old speakers (muttering, shifting weight, “um,” leaning on the podium) that is nearly as individual as fingerprints. Therefore, part of my approach at the beginning of each semester is to do all I can to set my speech students at ease. I then help them discover their distracting idiosyncrasies, and we work on eliminating them from their presentations. As students first become aware of their subconscious habits, most bring them under control. However, as the semester progresses, I often notice the poor habits returning. So, I looked for an activity that would bring what we had worked on back in focus without having to go back to the beginning.
Although the activity described here was done to help students become aware of strengths and weakness while giving speeches, it could easily be adapted to helping students identify strengths and weaknesses in other realms of their academic lives. For example, educators could have students focus on their strengths and weaknesses in writing, in doing mathematics, in speaking a foreign language, in taking tests, or (more generally) in being a successful student.
*To help students become aware of positive habits that strengthen their speech presentations
*To help students become aware of negative habits that weaken their speech presentations
*To help students take responsibility for maximizing their positive habits and minimizing their negative habits when presenting their final speech
*Paper and pencil.
1. Instruct students to take out a pencil and a piece of paper and write four paragraphs. I assured the students that only I would see their writing, so they could be completely candid and honest.
Paragraph 1: Write 3 of your strengths as a persuasive speaker. These can be specific (“I speak loudly and clearly”) or general (“I am intelligent”). These can be self-perceptions or what you believe others think of you.
Paragraph 2: Write 3 of your weaknesses as a persuasive speaker.
Paragraph 3: Explain how you will use your 3 strengths in your next speech.
Paragraph 4: Explain what you will do to overcome your weaknesses in your next speech.
2. Read the responses and compare them with the students’ actual speech delivery. Provide students with feedback on how well they eliminated their weakness and utilized their strengths.
I got a variety of written responses to this activity. Some dealt with the physical presentation: “I have good eye contact,” “I say ‘um’ more than I would like to,” “I feel comfortable,” “I have trouble pernouncing [sic.] big words.” Some dealt with organizational matters: “I don’t need many notes,” “I am well organized,” “I prepare poorly, I hate to write,” “If I know the subject I could talk all day.” These are just a few examples. The strengths everyone handled rather easily, relating them to the assignment at hand. Dealing with their weaknesses seemed to give some of them more trouble although everyone gave themselves good suggestions that came straight out of our discussions and activities from earlier in the semester. The most often stated way of dealing with their distracting habits was to practice! I stress the need for practice often, and more often, and then again. It was heartening to see that they had picked up on the importance of practicing. Some even suggested practicing in front of family members, a difficult proposition for most young people. Some other ideas: “I will work harder on being set in my concentration,” “I will try to relax,” “I won’t write everything out, practice more,” “I will say clear sentences.” Every student identified at least one revealing weakness and came up with a good idea for dealing with it. I thought some would not take the assignment seriously, but that was not the case. Give students responsibility and they will come through, I find.
How did they do in their delivery? The strengths came through readily in the speeches. Those who said they were organized gave organized speeches; those who said they talked loud or had good eye contact did so in their speeches. Here are some examples of the weaknesses, students’ strategies to overcome the weakness, and how they did on their speeches:
- Weakness: “Not much confidence.”
- How to overcome: “Remind myself that I can BS my way through it, if necessary.”
- Outcome: Gave a well-organized, convincing speech. Grade = A
- Weakness: “Little nervous.”
- How to overcome: “Practice.”
- Outcome: Paced back and forth, looked at floor, needed to practice more. Grade = C.
- Weakness: “Move back & forth.”
- How to overcome: “Work on making my movements mean something.”
- Outcome: Received extra credit points for gesturing. Grade = A.
- Weakness: “Talk too fast,” “say the word um,” and “play with my hair.”
- How to overcome: “I will slow my pace down and talk slower. I will try really hard not to say the word ‘um.’ I can’t guarantee it. I will try to relax and not play w/my hair.”
- Outcome: Still talked fast and said “um,” but did not play with her hair. Grade = B.
- Weakness: “I talk too fast,” and “I can’t stand still.”
- How to overcome: “Practice to make sure I don’t talk too fast,” and “Find a way to keep both feet on floor.”
- Outcome: Still talked a little too fast, but with clear diction and stood comfortably still throughout speech. Not perfect, but another A.
- Weakness: “Have to have things written out.”
- How to overcome: “Don’t write everything out, practice more.”
- Outcome: Took notes up for speech and delivered confidently and with good eye contact for an A.
Generally, the class did much better with speeches after this activity than before. I used a lot of A speeches in my examples above, but that is because there were a lot of A speeches: 60% of the class. It was a simple exercise, but it did direct their attention and in most cases they were successful in overcoming at least one of their weaknesses.
The experience showed me that the work I am doing early in the semester with making the students aware of their speech habits and working to overcome the distracting ones pays off. They do remember and they are able to apply the information; they just need to be reminded occasionally at this stage in their development.
I really did not expect these students to do so well on the final speeches after seeing all the problems that had returned in the speech before. I did not tell them that I was going to be watching for these traits when I watched the speeches, because I wanted to see if they would figure it out for themselves and take the responsibility to do the necessary work. This may sound like I am setting them up for failure, but as long as their organization was sound and their persuasion logical, they would still do very well with the few points taken off for small nervous habits. But they did go the extra step in almost all cases and took the responsibility for their own improvement. I was glad that I had given them the tools to succeed, and I am proud that they were able to use those tools effectively after all the work we did. I hear people say that the younger generation is hopeless and not focused, but I contend that this activity proves otherwise for some of them.
SOURCE: Adapted from an activity in Mastering Public Speaking (4th Ed) by George L Grice and John F. Skinner, Allyn and Bacon, 2001.
–Norman Engstrom, Faculty, Speech, Illinois Valley Community College, IL