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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

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“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.

Moving Outward and Moving On: Reimagining the Role of a Writing Center

As writing centers evolve, they can move beyond the simple definition of being places to receive in-person tutoring to sites of community engagement and hubs of social activism.

By: Carsten Finholt (’18)
Skyline Writing Center Co-President | Second-Year Tutor

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Over the course of the year and a half I’ve been a part of the Skyline Writing Center, I’ve had many “how did I get here” moments. Facing a elementary school cafeteria full of twenty plus families waiting to start a fun night, I couldn’t drown out the quiet voice in the back of my head asking “what lead me here?” On a hot day in June, between bites of a donut, I listened to leading educators talk about disciplinary literacy and thought “never in a million years did I think I’d end up here.” Sitting in the University of Michigan Museum of Art, writing poetry on a fold up chair front of a painting, I was struck by just how often we ask ourselves theses kind of questions in the Writing Center world. Our work seems to be an endless stream of “how did I get heres.”

Yet, situated in an educational system dictated by routine and structure, part of what’s so exciting about writing center work is an inability to predict what will come next. In applying to the Skyline Writing Center, I expected to be a writing consultant, but I never could have imagined everything else that would occur alongside that. In fact, some of the most meaningful and exciting projects I’ve been apart of existed beyond tutoring all together.

Most writing centers seem to grounded in a mutual understanding of what their primary function “should” be. In Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, Jackie Grutsch McKinney writes about a “grand narrative” for Writing Centers as “places where all students go to get one-on-one tutoring on their writing.” Muriel Harris, in the Concept of a Writing Center, defines Writing Centers as “writing program[s] or learning center[s] [that] serve entire schools” which must share uniform approaches and values. Many writing centers start with the goal of fulfilling the “grand narrative” McKinney describes. However, if Writing Centers focus too heavily on a tutor-centered definition, we can start to ask ourselves a dangerous question about unfamiliar territory: “should I be here?”

I believe that as writing centers evolve, they can move beyond the simple definition of being places to receive in-person tutoring. For example, community service has always been one of the Skyline Writing Centers’ core values. Over the past two years, we’ve begun partnerships with Eastern Michigan’s Office of Campus and Community Writing and 826michigan, increasing our focus on community facing projects. As our program becomes more and more invested in these partnerships, I’ve undergone a shift in my understanding of a writing center’s role “should” be.

One of the missions driving both Eastern and 826’s work is to create spaces that celebrate writing while also enriching kids/families’ understanding and practice of it. Throughout their community, Eastern Michigan’s Office of Campus and Community Writing sponsors Family Fun Nights designed to build meaningful literacy skills. At these events, families move from station to station, engaging in a range writing activities that focus on creativity and identity instead of standards and structures. I would argue that this kind of community work is just as critical to a writing centers’ identity as tutoring.

Many people would disagree with this sentiment, considering the work to be too far removed from tutoring. Yet, the family fun nights meet many of the requirements Harris states all writing centers should share: experimentation and practice are encouraged, writers at all levels of proficiency can participate, collaboration outweighs competition, and the work is catered to meet the needs of the community it takes place in. While the fun nights may not look like conventional tutoring sessions, their impact should not be discounted.

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I believe a writing center’s primary focus shouldn’t have to be tutoring in order to be characterized as an official Writing Center. If a program’s priorities lie in community-facing work or encouraging creative writing, these are still valid reasons for their writing center to exist. It’s even possible, I would argue, to be a writing center without tutoring services at all. Distancing non-tutoring focused centers from the writing center world would mean distancing ourselves from some of the most groundbreaking, original, and exciting work.

I understand that this leaves a couple critical questions unanswered: Are there boundaries to writing center work? Are there things we should or should not be doing?

I don’t have answers to these questions and, at this moment in time, I don’t think they’re the right questions to be asking. In examining “how did I get here?,” instead of thinking “should I be here?,” we should take a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come, then ask ourselves “where are we going?”

Works Cited

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. Utah State University Press, 2013.

Harris, Muriel. “Writing Center Concept.” International Writing Centers Association, Sept. 1988, writingcenters.org/writing-center-concept-by-muriel-harris/.