Let me begin with an apology to (and plug for) Rosemont College. About ten years ago, I was brought in to conduct a special accelerated Public Speaking class. In response to busy professionals’ need for efficient matriculation, the college began offering some three-credit courses over a weekend. Students would complete the course in 15 hours over a three-day period beginning Friday evening and ending Sunday afternoon. The concept did not sit well with me because my experience had taught me that public speaking improved best when taught and practiced over a period of weeks or longer.
By contrast, I also witnessed great results from the many one-day corporate workshops I had conducted. I knew that busy professionals were adaptable and self-motivated, so I was confident that students taking this accelerated course would fare well because they would continue to self-edify upon completion of the course.
When I met with the dean and department leaders to discuss the course, they invited me to work with them on designing a virtual Public Speaking course. My passion for Communication Studies and my penchant for purity led to my immediate and stubborn response: “You cannot conduct Public Speaking virtually.”
I did the very thing I loathe; I immediately responded with “no” rather than asking how and why the new option should be considered.
In my defense, alongside my firm belief that important nuances would be missed in the absence of face-to-face instruction and practice—a reality to which I still subscribe—was my dismay with available technology at that time. The transmission of computer video and audio was choppy and frustrating at best, with signals dropping constantly. Another factor was my suspicion about the motives of educational institutions and concern over the integrity of a higher ed degree.
Needless to say, I missed an opportunity to be on the front line of virtual classrooms. Mea culpa!
Fast forward a decade and something I should have expected has come to fruition. Technology has improved tremendously. The unexpected happened, too. A pandemic forced the immediate need to take all education online.
Over the past decade I have been on both the receiving and delivery ends of online education and personal development courses. While I maintain there are intrinsic benefits to face-to-face learning, online options are efficient, in many cases sufficient, and in this current crisis necessary.
What about Public Speaking? Can someone really be prepared to speak before a live audience after only training online, alone in a room looking at just a webcam? The answer is yes. You can learn to enhance your public speaking skills through online training. The onus is as much on the trainer as the trainee.
Of all the concepts included in my training programs, the three that need additional emphasis in an online training scenario are listening, organization, and visualization. A huge component of all communication training, listening for the professional speaker requires doing homework on the audience and networking with the audience. The more you can learn about your audience prior to your talk, the better you will be able to address the audience. Likewise, whether you are leading a small meeting in the conference room or addressing a large group in an auditorium, there are a number of ways to engage with the audience before and during your presentation. The key to successful listening is the ability to deliver your message in your audience’s preferred style of communication. The ability to organize a message is crucial to the success of reaching your audience. Novice and experienced speakers struggle with organization. In my college classes and corporate workshops, we spend equal time on organization and delivery. Visualization is the final step in preparation prior to delivery. When exercised deliberately, visualization quells nerves and reinforces the speaker’s message.
While practicing delivery in an online Public Speaking class is challenging, emphasis on the three aforementioned components can mitigate those challenges, especially given the ability to work one-on-one with the instructor.