by Christen Madsen
For all the emphasis that writing is given in the the academy as a way of honing critical thinking skills, the other modes of communication can easily be overlooked. Speaking, visual, and electronic communication round out the list of equally effective and necessary modes of communication of which writing is just one.
Public speaking is not limited just to attorneys, politicians and academics presenting a paper. While many of our students will not give a formal speech to an audience of hundreds, effective and fluent public speaking is required in common settings like weddings, funerals, business presentations and even telling a story at a party.
Unfortunately a public speaking class is not required at CSI. Many classes already include group presentation or informal speaking opportunities but this is often to compliment a written paper or project. Next semester consider replacing your term paper or other writing assignments with a speech.
Speeches and Critical Thinking
A core principle of WAC/WID programs in many universities is “writing to learn” whereby one uses writing activities “. . . to promote deep learning of the course’s ideas, concepts, and skills” (1). We can extend this to the other modes of communication so that one can incorporate “speaking to learn” by using public speaking activities to encourage engagement of the course material, mastery of the course concepts, organization of one’s own ideas, and development of essential critical thinking skills.
The aims of many courses at CSI is not memorization of facts and details (although there are courses in which this is central), but an engagement with the ideas and concepts. The students often have to evaluate arguments, and create their own logically structured argument in response to those they read.
These same critical thinking skills can be developed, fostered, and evaluated by not only writing assignments like term papers but also by public speaking assignments like persuasive speeches and informative speeches. Speeches, like a term paper, require the effective communication of an argument/thesis supported by clear main points with transitions and a concise conclusion delivered in a coherent, logically organized fashion.
Speeches instead of term papers
Where speeches differ from traditional written assignments is that they are given in a medium and using a form of language that is fundamental. Most people begin speaking/signing at a very young age and have mastered oral communication. People are masters as responding to a listener, incorporating overt and subtle feedback from listeners, controlling and manipulating register, and conveying information in an interesting and engaging way. Writing is something that is laboriously learned relatively much later in life. Writing in an academic setting is also burdened by a large number of arbitrary, prescriptive rules whose violation can impede focus on the content of a student’s work. Spoken language has less of these “rules” and as listeners we naturally focus on communication and meaning and subconsciously correct both real and prescriptive errors. A student’s split infinitive is unnoticed in a speech and a student can be almost only evaluated on effective and logical argumentation. This can be a benefit to an instructor who is often exercising
considerable restraint to not over-correct or over-markup a term paper. Another benefit is that speeches can provide a obvious audience for a student’s work in a way that writing a term paper or homework assignment doesn’t. (1) The student is giving the speech directly to their audience; An audience that is not only being addressed but actively listening. The student responds and adapts to their audience’s cues to create an authentic exchange that focuses on conveying a message successfully. This kind of real-time adaptation is impossible with a written text which is evaluated weeks after it was created. The student often doesn’t have an opportunity to correct or clarify in response to feedback.
Speeches Help Writing
One might worry that a focus on public speaking and a de-emphasis on graded, carefully edited terms papers could result in a decline in writing skills, or at the very least an absence of improvement. This is not the case as students’ writing skills are improved by the inclusion of public speaking. Speeches in a class improve not only a student’s confidence in expressing their opinion, but also improves their writing skills in the use of following formal and informal conventions of writing as well as use of clear language. (2)
Selling Public Speaking to Students
Public speaking can be a daunting task for students, and even us as teachers. In fact is it terrifying for many and more people agree that it is a fear of theirs, more than even death or financial problems. Men cite speaking before a group to be their number one fear and for women fear of public speaking is only outranked by death. (3). It is so stressful that simulated public speaking is used to study fear (4) and anxiety. (5)
This anxiety can be reduced by proper scaffolding, preparation, practice, and learning and practicing public speaking techniques, relaxation, and visualization. (6) You should remind students that while public speaking can be terrifying, and may always be, the more they practice the better they will get at it. They may not become less terrified of public speaking but they will become better at it. If they practice enough they can look natural and sound natural but may not feel natural.
You can very easily try out speeches in your next course with very minor tweaking of your existing materials. All the scaffolded exercises you have already developed for your term paper can be adapted for use with a speech as the final product. You can still require drafts of the speech for you to provide feedback on. Practice talks with a partner or a small group takes the place of peer editing of drafts.
A final class session of 2–5 minute talks for a class of 35 students will take less than 3 hours. You can make this into a mini-conference and have the other student ask questions, critique each other, and even vote on a “best speech award.”
The best part of speeches is that your grading of the final projects is done immediately. The students can get their grade as soon as they are done. You don’t have a stack of final papers to grade over the holidays and actually get the feedback from the assignments that they work very hard on. Next semester consider incorporating other modes of communication in your classes. Term papers and writing are not the only way of teaching and evaluating learning and critical thinking in the classroom. Public speaking is an important skill that every student can benefit from regardless of their major or future career goals.
Online Resources for Public Speaking
 Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd edition. Jossey-Bass: San Fransisco.
 Ah Yun, K., Costantini, C., & Billingsley, S. (2012). The e↵ect of taking
a public speaking class on one’s writing ability. Communication Research Reports. 29(4): 285–291.
 Dwyer, K.K., & Davidson, M.M. (2012). Communication Research Reports. 29(2): 99–107.
 Garcia-Leal, C., Graeff, F.G., & Del-Ben, C.M. (2014). Experimental public speaking: Contributions to the understanding of the serotonergic modulation of fear. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.
 de Oliveira, D.C.G., Zuardi, A.W., Grae↵, F.G., Queiroz, R.H.C., & Crippa, J.A.S. (2011). Anxiolytic-like effect of oxytocin in the simulated public speaking test. Journal of Psychoparmacology. 26(4): 497–504.
 Docan-Morgan, T., & Schmidt, T. (2012). Reducing public speaking anxiety for native and non-native English speakers: The value of systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring, and skills training. Cross-Cultural Communication. 8(5): 16–19.