Imagine yourself on a stage with the lights shining on you so brightly that you can hardly see the seats of the theater. You’ve rehearsed your speech for a week. Your audience is waiting expectantly for you to begin. All you have to do now is take a deep breath and begin to speak. Sound scary? It doesn’t need to be.
Students of Judith Reagan’s oral presentation class learn to speak clearly and effectively in public. They do vocal and physical exercises, practice tongue twisters and perform monologues on stage. Reagan teaches them to enliven texts for listeners by nurturing “a willingness that will grow into a desire to be speaking to people” and by strategically replacing bad habits with good ones to achieve “conscious utterance.”
Since college, Reagan has pursued drama and teaching simultaneously. During a Peace Corps posting in the Philippines, she trained elementary school teachers while directing a Neil Simon play with an amateur theater group during her off hours. Later, she realized how to meld her two passions when she substituted for an actress who trained law students in oral argument at Georgetown University. “I saw that the techniques one learns as an actor can be useful and adapted to lots of professionals’ situations. It seems logical to me now that communicating complex, dense material to students in an extended fashion—a semester’s worth of teaching—has certain overlap with a long-running show.”
Keeping that in mind, Reagan not only teaches students but also assists faculty in the craft of oratory as associate director of the Teaching Resource Center. Academia requires a lot of public speaking, from lectures to conference presentations to seminar debates. Many students will enter fields such as business or politics that require eloquence. “Yet a huge percentage of the population has disabling anxiety when faced with public speaking,” says Reagan. “They get heart palpitations and sweaty palms. It is the number one fear.”
For effect, Reagan will intentionally bungle the introduction to workshops. She shuffles papers. She fails to enunciate. She does this to demonstrate that audiences are very forgiving. “People are rooting for you,” she explains. “They want to grasp your message.”
The academic environment often values intellectual content more highly than presentation skills. But sometimes the message can get lost if it isn’t communicated clearly. Luckily, Reagan can help. “A lot of our gifted people suffer blocks,” she says. “But a little assistance goes a long way.”
The Parts of Speech
Public speaking is not a single undifferentiated task; it engages discrete skills, including:
Voice: Accent or dialect, articulation, pitch, rate and volume.
Body: Physical relaxation, breathing, eye contact, gestures and posture.
Isolate the elements and you’ll realize, even if you’re terrified of public speaking, that you already do many things well. Practice individual skills to improve the whole.
To increase vocal range: Take a deep breath, count aloud from one to 10, starting on a comfortable note and reaching your highest pitch at 10. Then reverse.
To practice articulation: Try tongue twisters such as “Unique New York” or “Whether the weather is cold, or whether the weather is hot, we’ll be together, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.”
To get energized: Before you speak, invigorate yourself with some shoulder and head circles, toe touches and quick bounces.
To avoid being a deer in the headlights: Avoid rehearsing in front of a mirror—watching your reflection will intensify your self-consciousness. Instead, focus on your audience. Watch their reactions and concentrate on what you want them to hear.