September 18th, 2009
Fear of public speaking ranks right up there, along with fear of abandonment and death. Many people are simply paralyzed by it. It is not impossible to go through one’s entire undergraduate career without ever speaking up in class. It is far less easy to escape that responsibility as a graduate student, although some desperately try.
Last week’s lively orientation session for incoming graduate students programmed a range of speakers throughout the day, from faculty to grads. Everyone has his or own distinctive style of speaking, a distinctive voice, quality of expression, range of vocabulary, and so on, and everyone has his or her own level of confidence with a microphone and a room full of well over 200 students and supervisors. Distinguishing good from so-so speakers was immediate: as soon as someone opened his/her own mouth, you could tell if s/he was going to be a strong, middling, or weak public speaker. A sure sign was whether the speaker was conscious enough to respect the audience’s capacity to hear.
Holding a microphone somewhere down around your fly is a good indication that you are out of touch with the simple laws of projection, not to mention the acoustical limitations of a large auditorium. Possessing a PhD is no guarantee of public speaking skills or self awareness.
Having years of experience as a faculty member speaking out loud doesn’t guarantee anything. Indeed, one might say that we often acquire bad or untutored habits of speaking, and unless trained out of them or confronted directly with our own inadequacies we can keep performing poorly in public until the end of time – or retirement, whichever comes first.
Make no mistake about it: public speaking is a performance, and no one really ought to assume it’s a natural act, like singing in the shower or eating pizza. People who loathe the prospect often have severe performance anxiety. The possibility of humiliating oneself is high, although such fears are often unfounded. Students can be generously forgiving of even the most incomprehensible profs, Rate My Professor scores notwithstanding.
Public speaking was once considered a classical art, and pupils would be trained by master orators to perfect their performances, to express themselves fluidly in public gatherings, to give others pieces of their find minds. Today, you have to look hard to find opportunities for public-speaking lessons, and too often this skill set is being managed by some shady commercial outfit in a strip mall. Memorial’s Graduate Program in Teaching (GPT) does go a long way to instructing students in this sometimes forgotten art, encouraging a marriage of the practical and the pedagogical. It is heartening to know that there is a hungry appetite to take this rich program offered by the Instructional Development Office (IDO) on campus, because, well, it couldn’t hurt, and, at best, it can transform you from being a shy puppy to being a confident role model. People look up to good public speakers. They want to be like them. The good ones make it all look impossibly easy. Politics makes this very obvious. As with any good performance, however, you have to act the part of a knowing, confident thinker, a strong communicator. As I’ve said, it’s not an inherited or natural skill. You have to practice.
If we are reproducing a society of people who remain terrorized by the demands of public speaking, we should be doing something about it. We should be offering special courses in public speaking at the undergraduate level, first, and foremost, and we should be offering graduate students even more enhanced opportunities to test their voice boxes, to, in effect, hear themselves. Knowing how you sound, being aware of the quality and power of you own voice is a significant achievement, one reached by trial and error. The reward for that experiment is more control over your very thoughts, and the creative potential for self correction. Not knowing you sound like a mouse caught in the dryer is inexcusable.
To those who fear and tremble at the prospect of speaking up: get over yourselves. Graduate school is just about the safest place you’ll ever find for rehearsing your public-speaking power. Graduate students should be seen and heard.
When someone gives you a microphone, make like Mick Jagger — and respect what it can do for you.