Beating the ultimate terror

Students learn to speak in public at the Ferguson Center

by Dr. Claire Deal, Director of the Ferguson Center for Public Speaking

Cat got your tongue? Concerned about an upcoming oral presentation, debate, briefing, or interview? Baffled at the prospect of an oral exam? Does the thought of speaking before a group make your stomach churn? Eager to present your honors project but unsure of how to organize your material? Need help preparing to share your paper at a professional conference?

speaking centerFor many people, public speaking is the ultimate horror, beating out heights, insects, snakes, financial problems, deep water, illness, and, yes, even death. The good news for presenters is that stage fright and its accompanying symptoms can be controlled. Contrary to popular belief, effective public speakers are not “natural-born speakers.” Public speaking, like any other skill, can be mastered through proper training, thorough preparation, and sufficient practice.

That’s where the Ferguson Center for Public Speaking (FCPS) comes in. Established in 2007 with funds provided by Ferguson Enterprises, the FCPS has a very simple mission: to help Hampden-Sydney students and other members of our community improve their oral presentation skills. Located on the main floor of the Bortz Library, the FCPS welcomes students, faculty, staff, and community members.

Services at the Ferguson Center include assistance with a range of oral skills, such as narrowing the topic, adapting to the rhetorical situation, researching the topic using both scholarly and popular sources, designing and using audiovisual aids if needed, coping with speaking anxiety, improving both verbal and non-verbal delivery, organizing group presentations, and preparing presentations for professional meetings and conferences. An instructional DVD series is available for students who seek additional help outside of the Center.

What Happens in a FCPS Consultation?
Aspiring speakers who make their way to the FCPS find that the consultants staffing the Center are attentive listeners and supportive critics: the consultants, too, have experienced the sweaty palms and dry mouth that many novice (and accomplished!) speakers feel. The majority of the student consultants have completed both Rhetoric 210 (Public Speaking) and Rhetoric 310 (Advanced Public Speaking) in addition to regular tutor training workshops throughout the academic year. Faculty tutors are also available to assist clients; Associate Director of the FCPS Tim Wommack and I work in the Center four afternoons per week. Student tutors work in the FCPS Sunday through Thursday evenings.

All of the tutors offer clients one-to-one assistance in both the preparation and practice of speech making. The preparation step involves working with a consultant, if necessary, to prepare a well-organized and well-reasoned outline with sufficient and appropriate evidence for the speech goal, whether it be to inform the audience or to persuade them to change an attitude, value, or belief.  During the practice phase of the consultation, speakers present their speech as the consultant records it on a DVD. The consultant and the speaker then watch the DVD together, discussing both the strong points of the speech as well as areas that may need improvement.

Open Mouth. Insert Knowledge.
In addition to providing tutoring services for students, the FCPS serves faculty members across the disciplines who want to incorporate oral communication activities in their classes. Faculty members who do so enjoy increased student learning of course content as students actively engage in the formulation and expression of ideas. Oral presentations, debates, group discussions, role-plays, interviews, and panel presentations are just a few of the many oral communication options available to instructors.

Professor Wommack and I are available to meet with other professors to help them design, implement, and evaluate various types of oral activities, as well as to offer tips for encouraging active and civil discussion in the classroom. In addition to working with individual faculty members, we also visit the professors’ classes and speak with students about the basic steps in planning and delivering oral presentations. Students then come to the FCPS to rehearse their speeches so that they are confident in their skills come presentation day.

Ready to get serious?
Students who wish to study the principles of public speaking in more depth are encouraged to enroll in one of Hampden-Sydney College’s public speaking courses; these students visit the FCPS throughout the semester to work on individual and group presentations. The College now offers two public speaking courses, Rhetoric 210 (Public Speaking) and Rhetoric 310 (Advanced Public Speaking), both of which are required for a minor in Rhetoric.

Human communication is a powerful and complex process; it is a combination of art, science, and skill. As such, it can be learned, practiced, and improved. The Ferguson Center for Public Speaking is a place where aspiring orators, future leaders, and Hampden-Sydney’s good people and good citizens can speak their minds, so that someday they may change the world.