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Cyndi AllisonScared Speechless

Draw on life experiences when building a classroom presentation

By Cyndi Allison

Your palms are sweating. Your eyelids are twitching. Your breakfast is on spin cycle.

Itís your turn to stand in front of fellow students and deliver a speech.

Speaking in public is cited as being the number one fear for American adults. It ranks ahead of being bitten by a dog, being hit by a truck and death.

Although many students dread and even put off taking a public speaking class, most students understand the need to develop and polish speaking skills. “I should have taken this class [Fundamentals of Speech] my first year,” said Stephanie, a returning student at Catawba College.

Studies show that employers rank oral communication skills right at the top of desirable qualities considered when making hiring decisions. Grade point average doesnít even make the top ten.

Older students actually have a leg-up when taking a public speaking class. Younger students have far fewer years and life experiences to draw on when hammering together a five to seven minute presentation. Returning students have worn a variety of hatsóemployee/boss, husband/wife, parent/grandparent. Extra mileage translates into excellent fodder for public speaking assignments.

Go with What You Know.
When given an option, always go with a topic you know well and care about. Itís far easier to speak from experience than from detailed notes about an unfamiliar subject area. Plus, itís more fun to work with material you enjoy.

Once a student started his speech with: “I play almost every sport you can imagine. Today, Iím going to talk to you about lacrosse, since I donít know anything about the game.”

Although the student had done extensive research about the history of lacrosse and the rules of the sport, he would have been far better off discussing a familiar sport he had played prior.

Some of the best presentations Iíve seen have been drawn from life experiences. For example, this semester a local factory worker told the class about fire protection systems. She brought samples of sprinkler heads from work and explained how the sprinklers in the classroom worked. A cosmetologist gave a demonstration on how to attach hair weaves. A farmer detailed the lost art of milking a cow by hand. A mother with teenage children demonstrated how to make taco soup in a slow cooker.

Once you decide on a topic, itís very important to organize materials. Remember that you donít need to share everything you know about a subject. Determine your bottom line and make sure all materials support your goals.

Set up an outline, so youíll know what youíre working with. If youíre not sure how to organize your materials in outline format, then check out the speaking outline sheet at the California Transplant Donor Network This is a very simple step-by-step plan that is easy to follow and understand.

Typically you work out the points for the body of the presentation first. Order materials systematically. If you want to show the class how to sew on a button, then practice and note each step in the process. If you want to build an argument against capital punishment, then list your reasons and order them logically. Often, it works well to save your strongest argument for last.

Once you have the presentation body set up, then spend some time working on the introduction. Itís important to set the stage for your presentation. Be sure to draw the audience in.


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