Public Speaking Tips for New Instructors

By Maria DelGreco

Photo of author Maria Del Greco
Maria DelGreco is a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Communication at University of Connecticut. She has experience teaching introductory and upper-level communication courses in both face-to-face and online contexts. Her research is focused in interpersonal as well as health communication, and centers around the use of communication to understand and reduce instances of gender-based violence. She is currently completing UConn’s Graduate Certificate in College Instruction and teaching Gender and Communication

When I was first accepted into a graduate program in communication, I was assigned to be a discussion instructor for Public Speaking, a class that I had never taken let alone taught before. I was barely older than my students, fresh out of an undergraduate program, with zero teaching experience, and I was terrified. I was given a few hours of training the week before classes started, a syllabus and lecture slides, and sent on my way. Now, after 5 years of teaching public speaking, I feel confident in my teaching ability and have picked up some tips along the way that are easy to remember in the moment and go beyond the standards of “make good eye contact” and “stand up straight.”

1. Make it a Conversation

My first tip, and the one that I use the most, is to treat every lecture as if you are having conversation with friends. This works on a few levels. First, it makes you less nervous. When you think of standing in front of a room full of people and presenting them with information, all of the pressure is on you, and it is understandable that you would feel nervous in that situation. But when you think of having a conversation with friends, you don’t feel nervous because all the pressure is not on you; you expect some back and forth with others.

Second, when you think of yourself as giving a presentation, oftentimes people will treat it as though you are presenting information to a group of people that may as well be a wall. When you think of it in this way, your energy goes way down because you are simply reiterating information and not expecting any response in return. I see this all the time with my students and have come to think of this phenomenon as the dreaded “public speaking voice,” which is the odd cadence that people use when they are presenting information without any dynamism or enthusiasm. It can sound very robotic. As soon I ask my students a question, they break out of that and immediately look more relaxed and their cadence returns to normal because now they are speaking normally instead of putting all their energy into reciting a memorized script.

Lastly, you want people to respond to your lecture! No student wants to sit through an hour lecture with a person simply talking at them. It’s boring for them, and it’s boring for you. People want to be engaged and involved in the learning process. Asking questions, waiting for responses, and building off of what’s been said are all things we normally do in conversations but seem to forget to do with public speaking, and these are the things that will make you less nervous and more engaging as an instructor. For me, I build discussion questions into the PowerPoint after every concept or two so there’s a break from lecturing, and it gets students involved. Sometimes these questions serve as a quick check-in or example of a concept; other times they end up as lengthier, thought provoking class discussions.

2. Be Yourself

This tip might sound cliché but it is one of the first and most important lessons I learned as an instructor. Since I started off teaching with no previous experience and about the same age as my students, I was really worried about being taken seriously. As a result, I put on a façade of a strict, authoritative, instructor that just wasn’t who I am. Students saw right through that and gave me feedback about how much they didn’t like that persona. I am naturally a laidback, sarcastic, and helpful person, and I don’t hide that side from my students anymore. In fact, I embrace it. Now, my course evaluations have improved, students feel much more comfortable to talk in class and approach me with questions, and I feel a lot more comfortable as an instructor.

There is no “right” way to act as a teacher. Some people can get away with sarcastic jokes while others would be viewed as condescending. What’s important is being yourself. Public speaking is nerve-wracking enough without the added stress of trying to be something you’re not.

Students will view you as authentic and appreciate that, and you will feel more comfortable not having to act like someone else.

3. Have Fun

I’ve seen so many speeches that had interesting topics but completely fell flat because the student presenter was clearly not interested in it. On the other hand, I’ve seen speeches with seemingly boring topics that were completely riveting (ergonomics of an office chair comes to mind). The key difference here is how much interest and enjoyment the student showed in their work. If you’re giving a lecture on something that you think is boring, it’s going to be boring for you, but also for the people who have to listen to you! If you’re not interested, it will come through in your voice and body language. You’ll be less enthusiastic and energetic, and students will pick up on that. As a result, they’ll be less enthusiastic and energetic.

I completely understand that some topics aren’t inherently that interesting and just need to be covered to move on to the next topic, but if there is anything that you can do to have fun teaching that topic, it will make a world of difference. Adding in media clips, bringing in a guest speaker, engaging in a group activity, and even telling a silly anecdote can all make the experience a little bit more fun. For example, when I teach Public Speaking I make sure to show speech videos and give examples of previous student speeches that I’ve heard, as well as have them practice in small groups to get them to feel more comfortable. When I teach Gender and Communication, I show videos that illustrate concepts such as street harassment as well as videos that offer other perspectives on certain topics that I am not as familiar with, such as transgender issues. I also bring in other graduate students from my department to give guest lectures on topics related to their research and the class, such as sexual communication and pornography in relationships. This serves to provide students with multiple perspectives, break up the monotony of lecturing, and makes class a little more fun. Even if you have to exaggerate your enthusiasm a little bit, your enjoyment will be contagious to your students. Students will learn better when they are enjoying themselves, and you’ll be less stressed and nervous about teaching when you get to talk about or do something that you find fun.  

I’ve been teaching for 5 years now and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of interesting people, heard a lot of cool speeches, and learned a lot about public speaking and myself as an instructor. These are the tips that have served me well and even helped to win me awards – I hope they help you too!

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