Improving Public Speaking Skills in the Writing Center

Every speech reflects the person giving it. We as tutors have the opportunity to not only improve a speech, but to help someone improve a skill that they will use for the rest of their life.

By: Ian Unsworth (’19)
First-Year Tutor

how-to-overcome-the-fear-of-public-speaking

“What are you afraid of?”

Every once in a while, this question pops into my head. Roller coasters, quicksand, clowns just those things that make my palms a little sweaty and my heart beat a bit faster. It never lasts long, and it never holds any weight. It’s just a moment, and it passes by.

In a classroom setting, most people would answer this question with “public speaking.” The speech is by far the most feared assignment in most ELA classes, over things like the nefarious AP timed essay, or the 8 page synthesis (still pretty scary).

I found it interesting that most people don’t worry about their speech itself being “bad,” but are scared they will be judged if they mess up their presentation. I began to wonder about how to change that mindset. How to avoid a writer’s worries about giving the speech, and how to make people comfortable reading their speech.

As tutors, we are responsible for not only helping students with their writing skills, but improving their confidence as writers. To assist them, we must first build a relationship. As Noreen Lape wrote in Training Tutors in Emotional Intelligence, “Empathy builds trust and both empathy and trust motivate learning.” We have all been in uncomfortable situations, no matter whether they are related to public speaking. We all know the feeling of butterflies in a stomach. It’s horrible. However, it is the human body’s natural reaction when put in a pressure-filled situation to give a bit of an adrenaline rush, and provide a person with a heightened sense of awareness. As a tutor, we can let students know that if their “palms get sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy,” it’s perfectly alright. It’s not unpreparedness, or inexperience– it’s their body recognizing the situation, and preparing them to perform.

To quote Noreen Lape again, “The skillful tutor moves from understanding to action, building on genuine and accurate empathy by helping to strengthen the writer’s self-efficacy or sense of agency.” For most people, they are most confident in a familiar situation. So how do we, as tutors, bring this familiarity to presentation, which is often an activity where people feel isolated?

The first key is through the writing. Personally, I am most comfortable when I can be informal, and my writing reads as such. My speeches tend to sound like I am sitting across from someone on a couch, having a conversation. Of course, every writer has different styles and tones. A great way to discover this is orating before writing. Tutors can play “scribe” and have the author just tell them what to write/type. That way, the speech will be written in their own words, and will be familiar for them to read. Speeches are first and foremost about the message, so there’s no problem if a Strunk and White rule is broken to get a point across.

Another key is formatting. Since speeches are read aloud, interpretation is a large part of their value. A five paragraph essay is cool, but sometimes a bit boring to read. As a speech writer, don’t be afraid to have an unusual format to highlight ideas, or to help your speech stand out. Also, if needed, add visual or vocal cues to help the delivery. Use your favorite font. Make notecards and write something funny on the top. Anything that makes you feel confident is a valuable tool for you.

Finally, practice is key. If you are tutoring, make sure the student reads the speech aloud to you every time four-five changes are made. This will not only give them the opportunity to practice reading the speech at an appropriate tempo, but also the chance to catch mistakes, or things that they may think sound weird or out of place. Encourage them to practice every chance they have. Repetition is key, and having even part of the speech memorized will make the delivery stronger instead of just reading it off of a paper, so if a line gets messed up, they can fall back on their practice to remember the next one.

Every speech reflects the person giving it. We as tutors have the opportunity to not only improve a speech, but to help someone improve a skill that they will use for the rest of their life.

Works Cited

Lape, Noreen.  “Training Tutors in Emotional Intelligence: Toward a Pedagogy of Empathy.” The Writing Lab Newsletter.  vol. 33, no. 2.  2008, pp. 1-6.

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