by Jennifer Jones Barbour
I had a student in my office the other day ask me if the only way to get better at public speaking was to fail a lot. I was struck by her question because it speaks to a core issue of public speaking: great public speakers are not born; they develop and hone their skills over years and years of practice. Yet our students frequently compare themselves to those great public speakers and are frustrated or anxious because their own skills do not seem to match up.
One of the ways that we as teachers can help our students develop those public speaking skills is by giving them lots of opportunities to practice in the classroom. Public speaking in the classroom does not have to be limited to formal presentations. In fact, sometimes the most effective ways to help students practice their skills are when they do not realize they are actually committing public speaking. A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine shared an impromptu exercise that allows this to happen.
It is called the Four Corners Debate.
I really like this assignment for a couple of reasons. First, it is very flexible. The exercise begins with a question or topic you pose as a claim or argument for the class. The topic can be anything. You might use a proverb or famous quotation as an argument. For example, you could argue that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Or you could use an issue related to campus from the least controversial (coke products should be brought back to campus) to the most controversial (A&M needs a female yell leader). You can even take a key question or topic from your course material and pose it as a claim. This flexibility in topic allows you to make the most out of the exercise – do you want the students to get to know each other better, develop their critical thinking skills, learn core course concepts.
The second reason I really like this activity is that the students often forget that they are speaking in public. Once you’ve made the argument to the class ask the students to stand in four different spots in the classroom according to whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree to the statement. Set a time limit for the discussion (say 10-15 min). Tell the students that they now need to make arguments to convince their classmates to change their mind and therefore their position in the room. They can work together to make their claims, or offer their own individual reasons why they think their classmates should join them. At the end of the time limit the position with the most people wins. The students often forget to be anxious because they are too busy trying to convince their classmates to move around the room.
The third reason I like this activity is that I get to model the kinds of argumentation and public speaking skills I want the students to develop without having to lecture. I always participate in the debate and I will often start out in the position that has the least amount of members. But I always move around the room, joining a group that makes a particularly compelling argument, or working with the largest group to get the last few members of the class to agree with them. I also take time at the end of the debate to debrief with the students: which arguments were most compelling? Least compelling? Why? Did they learn something new? Were they surprised by the arguments their classmates made? Were they surprised that they changed their minds? I have had all kinds of things happen during these debates. No one changed their mind, everyone changed their mind, we all ended up in the same spot, everyone was evenly distributed across all four corners. Regardless of the outcome, the exercise is always a useful one for generating conversation and practicing skills.
I told my student that yes, getting better at public speaking means you might fail, even a lot. But that is not a bad thing. It takes a lot of courage to get up in front of people and risk failure, but every time you do it you get better at doing it, you fail less and succeed more. Every opportunity we can take to help our students succeed more and fail less at public speaking is a good thing.