Rhetoric students gain public speaking confidence by giving TED-style talks

Mary Janzen
April 10, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A fear of public speaking is a common one among us. Yet the "ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization" is a top sought-after skill of college graduates by potential employers, according to the Job Outlook 2013 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Although students in ENGL 137H Rhetoric and Civic Life don't necessarily overcome all nervousness at giving a speech by the end of the course, they are able to gain practice by scripting and performing a four- to five-minute TED-style talk in front of their peers that is easily recorded using the One Button Studio within the Pattee Library Media Commons. Through this experience, they at least discover that they can get through giving a speech, and this can help them gain confidence.

Rhetoric and Civic Life is a yearlong course first offered in 2013, and is taken by approximately 500 Schreyer Honors College and Paterno Fellows students. Primarily developed by Debra Hawhee, professor of English and communication arts and sciences, the course was envisioned as a way to make assignments from two separate existing courses: ENGL 15 and CAS 100; build off of each other from fall to spring semester and eliminate repetitive material.

Jan Babcock, lecturer in English, who teaches a section of the course, described the "TED Talk" assignment and how her students used the studio: "I would say a lot of what we do the first couple weeks of the fall semester is repetitive as to what AP English students in high school probably did, for the purpose of getting all students on the same level of understanding with rhetorical analysis and academic writing. I think the TED Talk is where it really shifts to 'I've never done this before and I'm really scared!'"

"In essence, the TED Talks started out as what's called a paradigm shift paper, where they had to find a moment in time with a topic and figure out where it made a shift," explained Babcock. For example, a topic may be a U.S. foreign policy many people thought was a good idea at one point, but then several years later, public opinion shifted. "The TED Talk comes out of that topic," she said. "It builds off a previous assignment so that students are spending a couple weeks on the same topic and not just jumping into the TED Talk. They already have a starting point and have done some research."

When planning their talk, said Babcock, "some people will do a straight revision of their paper and some people will be really creative and do a fun look at it. One student did a paper about the cultural shift of masculinity in movies as his paradigm shift paper and then his TED Talk dealt with looking at James Bond." She noted that TED Talks have to be very visual, so that student was able to show the different images of the James Bond character on film and how it went through different transitions from a '60s man to the '70s and '80s.

"I have them write a draft of the speech, but they can't use it during the actual TED Talk," she said. "They have to get their thoughts in order, their outline formed," but during the actual speech, they are not permitted to hold any script or notes.

"I allow them to have off to the side one small note card so that if they get frozen, they can glance over," Babcock said. She recommends putting single words on the card, which remains off-camera, that are pulled from their outline to remind them where they are in their speech. "Every once in a while in a TED Talk, you'll see them glance over, which is fine, because obviously it's a learning experience," she said.

The assignment also requires that students include well-thought-out visuals that underscore points within the TED Talk, which the speaker advances with a remote-control clicker.

Although real TED Talks are given in front of a large audience, Babcock noted that the One Button Studio room will not fit a whole class at once, so she takes groups of six to eight students to the facility at one time. "We all sit there and watch the student who is presenting. All six of them will rotate that day. When you're not giving your speech, you're in the audience. I think it helps them sympathize with each other," she said.

To ease nervousness, while giving their talk, because the camera is suspended from the ceiling, "most people will look over the heads of the audience, because they don't want to look them right in the eye," Babcock said. But in the finished video, they are looking at the camera. She noted that she does not grade the talk based on what happened in the room during recording, but rather on the video itself.

Before the day of students' actual TED Talks, Babcock says she incorporates practice within the One Button Studio to help students be more comfortable and less nervous. "I give them a chance to come in and do a rough draft of their speech," she said, "because you know, you get nervous. Some people will spin the remote control, and I had one person drop it, and the batteries went flying in the middle of their speech. So I learned after last year to give them more practice time, especially holding the clicker."

Students can also make appointments to visit the studio on their own, which Babcock said a lot of them did. "They made the reservations outside of class with their friends and came in and did it that way," she said. "But I do one practice day with me in the room so I can show them how things work, so it's not just, 'Here, go in there and do your speech.'"

When a student is giving his or her actual talk, even if the person is nervous and slips up, Babcock discourages restarting. She said, "If they mess up, I try to tell them to regroup, because if you're really giving a speech, you couldn't say, 'Hey, can I start again?'" She encourages them to take a moment to regroup, catch their breath and glance at their note card or visual to get back on track.

One of the Rhetoric and Civic Life class requirements is that each student have a blog, where they can write reflections on assignments. Nearer the end of the yearlong course, said Babcock, "They have to do an e-portfolio and pick the best of what they did over the year and put it into one site. And most people will pick the TED Talk, because it's one of the true visuals."

One student commented in his blog about the TED Talk experience, "Walking into that one-button studio with the shades drawn, the bright lights shining on me, and the audience sitting just an arm's length away was one of the most intimidating experiences of my life. The experience, though one I would not like to have to go through again, was very beneficial. It made me get out of my comfort zone and try something I'd never done before." Comments of a similar vein showed up in other students' blog posts as well.

Some students also remarked in their blog posts that upon self-reflection on their finished video as opposed to how they felt during the actual recording of the speech, it turned out better than they remembered.

Babcock said of the intimidation factor, "I think that's pretty common. That's part of why I incorporated more practice time. Because just the aspect of the lights throws people off. The comfort zone thing is what I hear a lot about." She added, "I think there's your student who is on the debate team, who is comfortable speaking, but I would say out of a class of 24 that's probably four people who really are truly comfortable, and you don't hear the nerves in their voice, whereas most people are definitely out of their comfort zone." She said she also allows students to pick the classmates they want to speak in front of to make them feel more comfortable.

Being able to express your thoughts clearly out loud is a vital skill, according to Babcock. "There's no way to get around it anymore," she said. "I see seniors who are ready to leave, who say, 'I wish I could give a better speech.' I think that's being touched on in this class, which is being able to communicate your ideas effectively, but then also to control your emotions in giving a speech."

When asked whether the TED Talk assignment helped students overcome fear of public speaking, Babcock was realistic. "I think they learned they could get through a speech," she said. "I think if you hate making speeches, you probably still hate making speeches after this, but I think they learned how to organize a speech, and how to present it visually, and how to speak and use the visuals at the same time."

She said in summary, "I think it's a good learning process that they're going through with the TED Talk. Some people are just happy to get through it and be done, but there's no way you can get around giving a presentation at work and including multimedia."

When observing the students near the end of the course, Babcock said, "There's a lot of growth. At the end of the year, they're much more confident."

To learn more about the One Button Studio, a service of Information Technology Services, visit http://onebutton.psu.edu/.

Last Updated April 14, 2014