How to ace your next public speaking engagement on campus




The art of public speaking is an essential skill when you’re getting your start in higher education. Confidence in front of a group can—and often must—be achieved through public speaking practice. Here’s how to prep past any public speaking anxiety to deliver an artful and persuasive on-campus presentation.

Public speaking today involves many elements including PowerPoint decks, storytelling and engagement with your audience. Speaking on campus provides a low-risk way to get comfortable on stage and check out which content works, says Margaret Page, first vice president of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills.

Addressing campus audiences can raise your profile more quickly with senior leaders in your field and create additional opportunities. And feedback from your audience can help you improve your skills in the art of public speaking, helping you learn how to better generate excitement and interest among students—and build a following. Speaking skills can ultimately catapult you into becoming a thought leader in your field.

Presenting on campus as well as at conferences and other public events helped propel the career of Jill E. Family, Commonwealth Professor of Law and Government and director of the Law and Government Institute at Widener University in Pennsylvania. Through her speaking engagements, Family broadened the circle of those familiar with her work and provided a way for her to connect with other academics doing related research. The feedback she received improved and energized her work and helped fuel the back and forth essential for good scholarship, she says.

Speaking in front of groups does not come naturally to everyone, but that’s okay, Family says. It’s possible to find public speaking stressful and still be good at it. In fact, there is a scientific term, glossophobia, to describe fear of public speaking—which is said by some to be a fear second only to that of death.

Public speaking is actually something we practice in our daily lives, often without realizing it. Anytime we speak with another person, we are using our speaking skills. Many public speaking tips are designed to force you to go back to the speaking habits you use every day, according to the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. For example, introducing yourself to someone on campus is not much different from introducing yourself in an interview, conference or other “high-stakes” environment.1

It’s also important to understand that public speaking is not the same as “giving a paper,” writes Paul N. Edwards, a professor in the School of Information and the Department of History at the University of Michigan, in “How to Give an Academic Talk, v5.2.” It’s not enough to simply present information. Instead, the speaker must also engage and entertain the audience.2

To make talks work, Edwards recommends using these three strategies:

  • Communicate your arguments and evidence.
  • Persuade your audience that they are true.
  • Engage and entertain.

Audiences today expect to be entertained—and you’ll need to do so to keep their attention.

Academics often focus on the first two strategies but neglect the third, Edwards says. But audiences today expect to be entertained—and you’ll need to do so to keep their attention. Try these tips to help your audience lean in to what you have to say:

  • Don’t simply stand in front of the room. Move around on the stage while making eye contact with the audience
  • Use visual aids. They can dramatically improve audience understanding and engagement, says Edwards. He recommends a specific formula: No more than one image per minute, but more than one image every five minutes.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Deliver your presentation in front of a mirror or with colleagues, friends or family members who you know will provide constructive feedback. You could also take a video of yourself on your phone and play it back.

Finally, be yourself. Let your campus audience see the person behind the paper—and watch their eyebrows lift and eyes widen as they show interest in what you have to say.

2. Edwards, P. N. (2014). How to Give an Academic Talk, v5.2. Retrieved from http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtotalk.pdf
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