Boot Camps and what matters most in Public Speaking

In Psychology, Psychology of Success, Public Speaking, Success on August 12, 2009 at 6:13 am

public speaking

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

Most of the time the ‘meetings’ took place in the afternoon. As usual, I would be standing outside of a classroom or sitting in a lounge room waiting for the call to enter. Sometimes another candidate would be speaking before me and I would casually glance through the window in the door to see how the ‘crowd’ was reacting. As long as there was no laughter, I didn’t have anything to worry about.

In my quest to become a professor a major part of the interviewing process included presenting lectures to interviewing committees of up to 10 people. These lectures were usually followed by Q&A sessions to see if they liked me and to gauge how I would fit. Most sessions were friendly; some were not.

I’ll be honest with you. I never became nervous or anxious about giving those lectures even though I wore my Sunday’s best and wanted the jobs. Why? Well for five years previous to my search I had been teaching 2 to 3 courses a semester while earning my Ph.D. And although the committees chose the topics, the subjects were in a field I was thoroughly familiar with.

My Ph.D. is in Mass Communication. So I’ve taught many courses with titles such as Mass Media & Society, Intro to Mass Media and New Communication Technologies.  However, there are two courses that I have taught more than any other. Those courses are Public Speaking and Oral and Interpersonal Communication.

People who take these courses often ask what do they need to do to become “good” public speakers. I don’t ‘sugar-coat’ my response. When it comes to public speaking, there’s no magic pill or secret formula. But there is a major tool that a person needs to become an effective public speaker.

And that is confidence.

If you don’t have it there is only one way to get it and that is by practicing in front of an audience. No other shortcut will do. Yes, there are plenty of books that tell you how to write a speech, craft a presentation or how to use self-hypnosis to convince yourself you are a great speaker. But all of that is secondary to being able to confidently deliver a message.

I’ve seen people react in ways you couldn’t imagine or make up in the years that I have taught these courses.  People cry, run out of rooms, turn all shades of red, shake uncontrollably and when they are really scared they don’t even bother to show up. Then there are those who manage not to self-destruct, but are so ill-at-ease they are unable to get anyone to pay attention to their message. They make their listeners extremely uncomfortable.

But there is major upside. I have seen these same people become solid public speakers by the end of the term. Shy and retiring people morph into class favorites by becoming confident enough to display sides of their personalities that only their families and significant others have been lucky enough to experience.

It may sound counterintuitive, but I am able to help students because I run my classes like a boot camp, albeit a fun one. Each class the students must come up front and speak for at least a minute, which is an eternity if you are afraid. At first they must come up in groups, then pairs and then by themselves. I have them create original poems, tell jokes, take turns at charades, tell us about an issue that is important to them, tell us where they want to be in 10 years and a host of other exercises.

In groups they must create and pitch a product or service, come up with a Public Service Announcement and participate in debates. They end up speaking in a multitude of contexts and experience a broad range of emotions while doing so. They also work in groups and build solid relationships with people they would normally never interact with. All of these exercises build confidence and it is displayed in their speeches.

Students learn to do things they never thought possible. They can hold people’s attention, make people laugh and learn that people will take them seriously. They also learn that they are interesting people and that other people are interesting if you take the time to get to know them. What is really happening is that they are learning to be comfortable in public and beginning to experience all of the benefits it brings.

I write all of this to get to this conclusion. If you are interested in improving your public speaking skills to advance in a job, career or organization, your best bet would be to join a group or sign up for a class where you can speak regularly. It is one of the quickest methods you can use to increase your social and emotional intelligences. Barring that, try to consistently place yourself in a position where you have to speak before others such as a club, group or organization.

You can always learn how to construct a speech from a book, but confidence to speak can only come from speaking before crowds.

  1. Public speaking requires practice. It’s really about getting over the fear. Most people are afraid to speak in public. Once you realize that, it makes your experience a lot more tolerable.

    The best way to prepare to speak in public is to write it down. Check out this post: This has helped me a lot.

  2. Jarie,

    You’re absolutely right. I’ve taught these courses since 2002 and I quickly learned that public speaking was about confidence and have been saying it ever since. It’s my mantra and I’ve always told students that if they develop it everything else will work itself out. Every semester (unless it’s summer) my students speak 30 to 42 times before an audience in a period of 4 months. We also go in depth about the philosophy behind public speaking and crafting a speech, but without those “daily reps” in class they might as well just write something on a piece of paper and read it to an audience. The practice sessions allow us to sculpt and mold their speaking skills and reduce their anxieties.

    That’s the great thing about taking a class or joining a group dedicated to improving public speaking skills. It is a safe environment, everyone’s there to improve and it allows one to improve quickly without losing credibility.

  3. Exactly. It’s not just the confidence to deliver a speech, it’s the confidence to be yourself in front of a large audience and be able to think on your feet.

    It’s one of those odd things in our society… public speaking is rarely practiced or taught in schools, and at the same time, everyone expects you to be good at it if you want their attention. It’s like throwing yourself in the middle of the road, and hoping to hell your motorcycle doesn’t tip over.

    Tis like every pursuit, me thinks…. kissing, sex, throwing a ball, dancing. The more you do it, the better you get because it becomes more familiar to you (so you don’t feel like you are risking as much), and you learn from what doesn’t work.

    Kudos on the teaching.

  4. <– likes the idea it's a skill, not a gift.

  5. thethoughthole,

    It is a shame that many schools don’t focus on increasing the public speaking skills of students. In Florida (where I teach), public speaking classes are mandatory courses for college and university students. Although it forces us to direct our attention away from some of the more interesting topics we like to teach, I believe it is a necessary evil.

    Yes, I definitely think it’s a skill. Those who are confident and are good at public speaking usually come from environments where they received positive reinforcement when they spoke up, had strong role models and have honed their techniques over the years in their school environments, with friends and family members.

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