Public Speaking vs. Effective Communication

I love public speaking.

I actually had a dream about it last night. It had all the hallmarks of an anxiety dream: late to class in high school, not sure which class to go to, arrive in class and discover I have to give an impromptu speech. But I woke up from that dream feeling awesome, and kinda wanted to go back and finish my speech. That’s how much I like public speaking.

Unfortunately for me, I’m coming to the conclusion that I need to public speak much less (or not at all) when I go back to lead teaching.

Where I’m coming from with these thoughts are the night EAP classes I teach or assistant teach at a community college in Maryland. My classes typically have 15-20 students in them, and we’re typically in computer labs arranged in rows.

Efficient? Effective?

It feels so efficient to just explain once to everyone, doesn’t it?


As far as I can tell, it’s really ineffective.

As the assistant, I was surprised again and again at how many students asked me questions one-on-one that showed they did not grasp what the teacher had just communicated from the front of the room. From the sidelines, I also saw how much they asked each other for clarification. I saw this across different teachers and students, at different levels in different classroom environments, with varying content and activities.

I assume that this was the case in classes I lead taught also, but that I was much less aware of it because 1) I was standing in front and not among the students, and 2) my mind was on leading. I also suspect that 3) students hesitate to ask the lead teacher to clarify what s/he just said as much as they need because (this is conjecture based on experience) they don’t want to hold up the class, insult the teacher, look stupid, or find that they still can’t understand.

So… what to do with this observation?

Exploring Three Types of Responses

1. “Keep Public Speaking Regardless”

One possible response could be that this is good practice for students in “real” academic classes, which are generally lecture-based.

I do think there is a place for targeted practice listening to lectures and/or oral instructions.

However, we do not teach typical academic classes; we teach language classes for a language they need to use immediately.

In my opinion, the struggle isn’t good for them when it blocks them from learning the stated objectives of our class and understanding class activities.

2. “Improve Your Public Speaking”Another possible response could be that we teachers need to get better at public speaking: present more clearly, briefly, and engagingly.

I’m open to this! Here are a few ideas:

  • Break It Up
    Deliver eight-minute lectures interspersed with discussions and comprehension activities.
  • Use Written Support
    Make sure that any important points are written down on the board, PowerPoint (ugh), or in some other way. Please don’t do Death By PowerPoint though.
  • Move
    Sometimes, speak from the back instead of the front, or the side. Especially nice if your room has swivel chairs. Will you just have a different clueless back row? Or will your former front row pay more attention out of habit?
  • Gather in a circle or a standing crowd.
    This could be particularly helpful for giving instructions. It might eliminate “The Clueless Back Row Phenomenon” if everyone is closer together. People also get tired from too much sitting, and standing might physically help them be more alert. (Teachers of huge classes – have you ever tried anything like this?)

3. “Stop Relying on Public Speaking”

One final response to mention here is that, at least in smallish classes like the ones I teach, we could drastically reduce how much we even attempt to address the whole room, particularly when explaining activities, assignments, etc.

A few ideas for communicating differently in this kind of a setting:

  • Explain to smaller groups instead. (e.g. the same thing four times)
    Seriously. From what I’ve experienced both as lead and assistant teacher, it might actually save time and repetition, not to mention half-panicked confusion and task errors. If you have an assistant teacher, you can explain in parallel even more efficiently.
  • Give different tasks to different smaller groups.
    They could differ by level, need, modality, or interest, or be step one of a jigsaw.
  • Delegate the explaining to students.
    Explain to team captains, and provide written support. Then, each captain goes to explain to his/her group. The teacher and assistant follow up with each group soon after. This could be gamified into something like a dictation relay or a game of telephone. Over the semester, try to be fair about how often each individual is captain.
  • Have waiting time activities for modest bonus points.
    In a writing/grammar class, have editing practice sheets available for students who get explained to last or finish early. For reading, some short pieces with comprehension questions. For vocabulary, some worksheets. For speaking/listening, short assignments for students to record and submit via their smartphones.


Has anyone else been frustrated by the limitations of public speaking? What alternatives work for you?


Photo Credit: Oleg Brovko on Flickr

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