Department of Communication

Teaching Oral Communication: A Few Basics

Formal speaking instruction extends back to classical antiquity, where it represented a central component of the well-rounded education that preceded the modern liberal arts curriculum. Speaking was considered an art mastered by learning its principles, studying models, and gaining experience through practice. This classic understanding is still a useful point of departure whether the goal is having students speak to learn or learn to speak.

Students are most likely to improve if opportunities to speak are accompanied by instruction in basic techniques and consideration of good (or bad) models. This is true whether the oral activity is formal (a podium speech or structured debate), semi-formal (a class or small group discussion), or informal (one-on-one student discussions interspersed through a lecture). Instructors are well-served not to just ‘turn students loose’ with a speaking exercise but instead to detail the aims of the exercise, criteria distinguishing good and bad performances, and principles the students might draw upon to guide their efforts.

Informal or Low-Stakes Speaking Activities

While formal speaking instruction has a very long history, the importance of informal or low-stakes speaking activities has been more recently recognized.  Such informal activities can have a benefit of their own as well as contributing to higher-stakes speaking assignments.  In general, the ability to speak in formal settings is grounded in and builds on more informal speaking abilities, both in terms of material discussed and in confidence as a speaker.  Students come to class with a wide range of experiences in oral communication.  Some students have been encouraged to express themselves and their opinions from an early age; others have had no such experience or may even have been actively discouraged from doing so.  Some students find it very anxiety-provoking to address the class as a whole, while others revel in it.  In order to provide opportunities for all students to develop their speaking skills, instructors can use informal or low-stakes speaking activities, especially early in a term, to provide experiences in dealing orally with course ideas and to raise students’ comfort level with speaking in class.

A useful informal technique is to have students discuss a question or issue in pairs before opening the discussion to the class as a whole.  This gives students a non-threatening experience in discussing course ideas and guarantees that all students have something to contribute to the ensuing discussion.  Such a strategy effectively restructures the social organization of the classroom, from an exclusive emphasis on students speaking to the teacher or to the whole class, to students communicating with students.


Good Oral Communication

Some aims, criteria, and principles are specific to particular disciplines, while others are more general. Scientists typically speak differently than literary critics, philosophers differently than sociologists. In some fields, presentations typically include visual presentations of data or other material, using PowerPoint, overheads, slides, or posters. In other disciplines, the unaccompanied spoken word is more customary. Language styles range from relatively unadorned scientific discourse to more poetic or expressive first-person speech. Genres vary as well. Discussions about a common research project within a scientific laboratory differ from discussions about the meaning of a poem or an oration. Arguments about politics take different shape than arguments about scientific experiments.

To teach field-specific elements of oral communication, instructors should consider two questions: (1) what kinds or genres of speaking do students in my field need to master? (2) what characterizes effective speech in each of these different genres?

While some criteria and genres are discipline-specific, there are also overarching principles of good oral communication that are worth teaching students. One very useful schema is audience, purpose, and occasion. Good speakers should always consider relevant traits of the audience they are addressing—e.g. their knowledge of the topic, level of understanding, interest, expectations, beliefs, and their perceptions of the speaker. Considering these traits will help a speaker to determine what sorts of background material they need to provide, how technical or complex they can be, what arguments are most likely to be persuasive, and how entertaining they need to be to keep the audience involved.

In addition, good speakers should be clear about their own purposes—is it to explain? to inform? to argue? to provoke? to move? to entertain? to display their abilities? to establish social connections? Often times speakers have more than one purpose, but clarity about purpose generally determines what will be said.
Finally, good speakers should recognize the resources, constraints, and conventions tied up with the occasion of which they are a part—be it a poster session, a job interview, a polarized community meeting, or an academic debate. Occasions carry different senses of what is appropriate in terms of language, organization, subject matter, and style of delivery. Considering the occasion helps speakers determine how long to speak, what to focus on, whether to speak formally or informally, what visual aids are called for, and a host of other factors.

Speaking vs. Writing

In considering audience, purpose, and occasion, good speakers should also remember that speaking differs from writing. Unlike readers, listeners cannot go back and re-read what they missed, and they don’t have the benefit of paragraphs and headings to help them follow the structure of an argument.

In comparison with readers, listeners generally can’t process as complex language, have a harder time following highly nuanced arguments, and face stricter limits on how much information they can take in. This means that clarity, organization, and focus are especially important if speakers want their listeners to take in new information and follow their arguments. They generally need to use less complex language, more straightforward sentence structure, and clearly focus on a handful of well organized main ideas.

Speakers should build repetition into their speech with clear, orienting introductions (e.g. “I will report on…”) and summaries of the main points. And they should help the audience follow along by using transitions, signposts or ‘oral paragraph marks’ (e.g. “First…Second…Third,” “My next point is…”), and verbal underlining of key ideas (e.g. “The crucial finding was this:..”). All of these techniques help to ensure that a speech actually communicates ideas to an audience.