Speak Up

A public speaking class can help you land a job or deliver a punch line.

Illustration by Mouni Feddag

We speak aloud every day—some of us more than others. We chat with friends, force small talk with strangers, or yell at our kids. For the most part, we’re pretty good at verbal communication.

Yet prop a person up at a podium in front of a crowd, and that well-practiced skill may disappear. Nerves creep into the speaker’s tone of voice, pace of speech, and physical tics. Voices crack, hands fiddle with belt loops and hair, feet tap, and sweat beads up.

Glossophobia, or fear of public speaking, is the most common phobia. Bring on the heights, spiders, small spaces, and death—just keep the speeches away. As Jerry Seinfeld so aptly put it, “If you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

All this fear of public speaking is a shame, because it can be an incredibly versatile skill, useful in everything from a job interview to delivering a punch line. The style, setting, and size of the audience may change, but it still comes down to a single speaker commanding attention.

“Public speaking affects your academic, personal, and professional lives,” says Steven D. Cohen, a communications professor at the University of Baltimore who has also taught at the University of Maryland and Harvard. He is proof of the poise that training in public speaking can provide. No ums, uhs, or likes dilute his message; his pacing and pauses make listeners pay attention. Cohen taught a public speaking course I took at the University of Maryland in 2011, and the lessons I learned in his class helped me far beyond the confines of his hour-long morning lectures.    

I attended (almost) all of the lectures, though, because it was an interesting, ever-changing hour. On certain days we would learn how to craft messages by applying logos, ethos, and pathos, Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion. One class period was focused solely on employing the power of silence and pauses in our speaking cadence. In another, we were filmed giving a short speech, and then critiqued on our physical tics as we rewatched the video with the professor.

“People shoot out résumés and cover letters in emails into these black holes. Those that can pick up the phone and call a recruiter or impress in an interview, those are the people that get the best jobs. Public speaking is a differentiator,” Cohen says.

Why wouldn’t we teach such an essential and versatile skill to all students? Communications majors in colleges across the country take entry-level public speaking classes their freshman year, but people in other majors usually don’t, and the class is nowhere to be found in federal curricula for high schools.

Only 21 states have certification standards for communications teachers at the high school level, according to the National Communication Association. One of the NCA’s main resolutions states that having a required communication course in high school “should be of utmost importance.”

Some argue that, unlike with math or science, we get enough practice communicating already. But formal training provides a different focus. “Training allows you to gain some self-awareness of how you show up under stress, and then learning to manage that,” says Kristi Hedges, who coaches business executives on presentations and public speaking. Identifying and rectifying these nervous tics can be easier when people are younger and are not as locked into their speaking styles.   

“We all have this ability to speak powerfully, but in my experience it’s something that’s learned,” says Cohen.

Even informal occasions for speaking are diminishing. Over the past decade, we have shifted toward a text- and image-based world of communication where devices and documents dominate the workplace and the classroom. As phone calls have given way to emails, and conversations with co-workers have been replaced by instant messages, the occasions to speak up during the average day have decreased.

Taking a public speaking class—in high school, college, or a continuing education program—can help fill that void. The benefits go far beyond the ability to recite a memorized speech at the front of a room of your dozing classmates, shuffling notecards between your hands. “You’re going to be in situations where you’re nervous your whole life,” says Hedges. “Learning skills to deal with that can be immensely helpful.”

Making yourself get up and talk has another great side effect: It forces you to find something to talk about. Topics you are passionate about, knowledge of others’ interests, and the confidence to share them aloud are all things we should strive for, and a public speaking classic is the perfect venue to realize them.

Read more of Slate’s collection of classes you should take.

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