Oral Presentations: from Aristotle to Zoom

As I’ve engaged with fellow Hub affiliates (and read more about their projects on this blog!), I am genuinely inspired by their work.  It seems every time I think about my teaching, I realize how many things I have yet to learn, and how grateful I am to have the help of so many innovative educators that are constantly working to improve how they (and, by extension and generosity, “we”) engage students.  I’m proud to work with such creative scholars and educators that are pushing these things forward at UM Dearborn.

Me?  Well, I’m pushing things backward.   . . . but hopefully in a useful way.

From the roots . . . sometimes the beginning is a good place to start

Image of tall trees from the perspective of a person on the ground

I’m going back to one of the first classes I took as an undergraduate student, the first class I ever taught as a graduate student (and perhaps one of the first “classes” ever taken or taught in all of academe!).  It’s a class I still enjoy teaching as much as any of my upper-level specialized courses, despite it being an introductory course that students often dread (indeed, fear more than death?) The course is public speaking, and the communication skills learned are as important as ever. The affiliate project even has me dusting off some of the Loeb classics and thinking about the origins of classical rhetoric, rereading and rediscovering some of the principles of an age-old craft as applied to a new age.  I’m intrigued by how I’m seeing connections in new ways after having taught public speaking for thirty years now, and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to pass along some basic resources on public speaking that will be useful for faculty and students in a variety of contexts.

Creating Resources for Faculty and Students

My goal for my affiliate project is to develop a set of simple, useful, and adaptable resources to share tips and best practices for foundational elements of oral presentations, both in and out of the classroom setting.  My motivation for the project is both a long-standing one and one renewed by recent events:  as educators, we’ve long known the importance of an effective writing center like we have on campus.  But not nearly as many campuses have “speaking centers” or other co-curricular programs to help students with oral communication skills.  I’ve thought for years that a speaking center or oral communication lab would be a valuable resource for our faculty and students alike, and I hope the resources I help create through this affiliate project will provide a starting point for faculty and students to think creatively about what exactly our campus needs might look like.  In addition to these long-standing considerations, the project was also kick-started last year by thinking broadly about pandemic pedagogy, at the immediate onset of forced distance learning (let’s find a way to keep oral presentations a part of student learning!), during the long haul on AY 2020-2021 (how do we best use all these tools available to us!), and now, as we emerge (hopefully!) on the other side of this thing (what opportunities do we have to assign oral work given student familiarity with new technologies and our new teaching modalities?). 

Connections galore . . .

Enhancing the basic skills of public speaking is a decidedly old-school project, but I’m surprised and encouraged by how many overlaps I’m seeing with my colleagues examining ideas about introductory classes, the specific needs of populations like working class students, and important concepts that reduce the distance between instructor, student, and material, seeing students as partners in both exploration and even grading.  Each of these ideas and more can be enhanced in some ways by encouraging students to publicly articulate the values and experiences of their learning.  Indeed, Aristotle said it best when he defined rhetoric as applicable (and I would add important) to “any subject whatever.” Sure, the ability to communicate effectively cultivates an important professional skill that employers consistently rate as one of the principal skills for success, but presentations also enhance the learning experience in almost every course.

I’d love to hear from you . . . what do you need?

Some of the topics I’ve begun creating include the following:

  • basic speech anxiety and communication apprehension
  • speech organization
  • attention-getters and introductions
  • the difference between oral and written communication
  • orally citing sources
  • audience analysis and adaptation
  • speech delivery
  • online presentations
  • outlining and speaker notes

These are just a few initial ideas.  But for anyone reading this blog – faculty, students, course designers and/or program/discipline heads  – I’d love to hear from you about the resources you think would be most important and most needed for your own areas.  I’d be happy to help create more specific materials as needed to fit an array of disciplinary needs as well as different contexts (in-class presentation, recorded presentation, poster presentation for undergraduate research, or a host of other situations where you are called upon for oral presentations).

So, please be in touch (tamurphy@umich.edu) with any questions, ideas, thoughts, or requests for resources that can help us improve oral communication skills on campus.  Whether you are continuing to teach online, as a hybrid, or returning to campus for predominantly face-to-face instruction, I’d love to hear about the needs of you and your students.

Feature photo by Donovan Murphy

Big thanks to Jessica Riviere, Sarah Silverman, and Alfonso Sintjago for all of their help with my project.

Picture of Troy wearing glasses and a dog

Troy Murphy is an Associate Professor of Communication, teaching courses in the Public Communication and Culture Studies and Speech Communication areas of study. He also teaches in the UM Dearborn Foundations Program. He’s the one wearing glasses.