Temperament Matters in Public Speaking

PLATOThis summer marks the twenty-fifth year I have been teaching what the speech communication discipline calls the “basic” course. At Penn State, the course is now Communication Arts and Sciences 100. Before I even graduated with my MA in 1988 I was hired over the phone to teach a “basic” course that began the next day for a community college in Northeastern PA. The instructor had reneged on his original agreement to teach the course, and I was all too eager to take the assignment. I said “yes” before I realized I had never taught a course in anything and being the youngest of three siblings I had never even taught anyone to tie shoes. I was twenty-three years old.

I still remember some of the students in my class. There were no more than fifteen students and one girl’s name was Honor. Quite an unusual name, I thought. I’ve never had another “Honor” in my class since. I made my syllabus by copying the one I had as a high school senior when I took the course at the local junior college. My high school was ahead of its time in allowing some of us to take fifteen college credits while still in high school. I chose the public speaking course because I thought I was good at it. I borrowed the “Resuscitation Annie” from the local American Red Cross to demonstrate airway, breathing and circulation. If, at age 17 someone had told me I’d be teaching public speaking for twenty-five years I don’t know what my reaction would have been, but it wasn’t what I imagined I’d be doing. I got an “A” in the course.

Some professors try to avoid teaching the introductory public speaking class, but I embrace it. Before I settled into my academic home at Penn State in 1995, I was a traveling teacher, a modern-day Sophist, teaching public speaking so that those who learned the skill could better their lives. I learned, too. I always learn something new about teaching the course every single time I teach it and this summer has been no exception. Blessed with what I would describe as a dream class of highly motivated students, I had to force myself to find useful criticisms on ways that they could take their speaking to the next level. And, as I usually do when surrounded by bright and engaging students, I had an “aha” moment.

Here it is:

I believe that reticent speakers may become more adept at speaking when they match the speech topic to their temperament. For example, one student, whom I gently chided for his seriousness, gave a number of speeches that earnestly warned against some impending doom, and you know what? It worked for him.
I’ve always been a believer in allowing students to choose their own topics, but this is more than that. This is giving students a certain comfort level by making the most of their natural inclination.

Remember when Bob Dole ran for president in 1996? Time magazine described him as “the nation’s mortician.” But he is more inclined to be dryly witty than bombastic. No, he didn’t win the presidency, but his speaking style was true to his nature. For student speakers that connection may be the key to beginning a lifetime of successful speaking.

I’m just tinkering with this idea. I’ve quickly reviewed some basic course literature and I can’t find much that speaks to this topic so I’ll keep thinking about it. If you’ve taught speech, have written or given speeches or if you have been a reticent speaker and have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, remember, speak up and speak well!

Happy Twenty-Fifth Anniversary to me. The best stuff happens to me over the phone. But that’s a thought for another blog.

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