We Need To Change How We Talk About Public Speaking

Nick Gold 17 May 2019

This week saw the emergence of an ongoing investigation surrounding the death of Natasha Abrahart, a second-year physics student at Bristol University, who killed herself last year. On the day she died, she was due to give an assessed presentation. In the wake of this terrible news, The Guardian conducted an enquiry into whether universities should be doing more for students with acute anxiety like Natasha, and indeed whether the employer emphasis on ‘communication skills’ is overwrought.

In light of this, I think we need to look at how we frame ‘public speaking’, and how, by the time students reach university level, the skill is placed on a pedestal.

In the most basic sense, we spend our entire lives publicly speaking. In nursery, we share what we got up to at the weekend. In primary school, we have ‘show and tell’, which, in many cases, yields an overwhelming number of volunteers compared to the ten-minute allocated slot.

When we are young, and public speaking is framed as sharing, explaining, and telling stories that are close to us. The comfortable environment we speak in ensures it doesn’t feel like a terrible, life-changing, spotlight moment. It boils down to exactly what it is: a chance to communicate with our peers.

Yet, by the time we reach university, public speaking undergoes an incredible shift of formalization. Suddenly it counts for 20% of our grade, we have to speak in front of strangers, and a ticking clock. Our palms are sweaty, the week leading up to the event is filled with sleepless nights, and we are debating our escape routes.

To me, this indicates a failure on behalf of the education system.

Why should public speaking be marketed as a hugely formal, and career-determining force? Is a university not just an extended version of ‘show and tell’?

It is the responsibility of the institution to take care of its students. This comes in many forms but should include reassuring the student body that public speaking assessments aren’t to be feared. But instead embraced for what they are: a scheduled talk.

The key to a great talk absolutely lies in the content. If you are knowledgeable about your subject matter and have a clear idea about where you want the ideas to go, then speaking about it can be straight forward. It is the environmental factors that induce fear.

Take essay writing and exams, for example. A great writer is likely to prefer writing in their own space and time, without monitoring a ticking clock, surrounded by other students frantically scribbling. Yet, writers are examined under strict exam conditions which, much like public speaking, cause physical and mental distress. The sweaty palms, inability to focus, and insomnia, prevail. But if the student was able to transform their mindset and begin to see the similarities between writing in and outside of the examination room, the experience might improve. After all, both scenarios have a blinding similarity, the task at hand: writing.

I believe that speaking should be the same. Whether we speak to our friends about our key thoughts on Game of Thronesor speak to examiners about a topic we know inside out, the atmosphere should be treated the same. Both are an opportunity to air ideas, have expanded thoughts, and offer a renewed way of thinking to our audience.

Public speaking is not only incredibly powerful, but incredibly natural, too. From a young age, we are all orators. In order for this to remain, we must take the manufactured pressure off public speaking. We must reign in the pedestal we have placed it on and go back to the basics. It seems we have a lot to learn from ‘show and tell’.

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