This past week the Speaking Fellows hit the Diana Center for some Valentine’s Day themed tabling – to promote our initiative for Barnard Students to fall in love with speaking. We asked to students to do something very simple for the campaign:
- Set a personal speaking goal and sign a pledge to work on it.
- Write that goal somewhere it can be seen it every day.
- Eat chocolate. Positive reinforcement.
Easy! We had incredible participation and the enthusiasm of the students was inspiring. We suggested a few speaking goals including eliminating fillers such as “like” from your vocabulary, participating more in class, and projecting more when speaking to a large room. But the students who signed the pledge were extremely creative and added many more positive goals to our list. To celebrate my own love of speaking, I’m going to give a few helpful tips for the most popular goals that were set this week.
Observation: When I feel that I’m speaking too much in class the problem usually is not that I’m raising my hand too much or inserting myself too often, but rather that I’m taking up too much air-time and being long-winded when I do participate. In a session just last week I discussed this with a student who felt that she has many valid points and arguments to offer throughout any given class, but when given the opportunity to speak she tends to ramble, which makes her feel like she’s dominating discussion too much.
Suggestion: Rather than curbing your participation overall, make sure that your participation is as succinct and salient as possible. In Session 2 “Classroom Discussions” we challenge students to first make a complex argument about a text, and then reduce the spoken content of their argument by 50%. In other words, find the most potent thesis statement of your point. Chances are that if you do this exercise before every time you contribute something in class, you’ll end up reducing your air time substantially, while preserving and even enhancing the integrity of your argument. Before you speak make sure you know what you’re going to say, and then try to say the same thing in 50% the amount of words.
Observation: Students in my workshops speak quickly for any number of reasons – nerves, enthusiasm, a lot to say. I’ve noticed that speaking very quickly is usually combined with another common speaking habit: making one long sentence out of everything you have to say. When we get nervous or excited, we use fillers and conjunctions to make everything we want to say into one massive run-on sentence, and that sentence tends to come out very quickly
Suggestion: Try to artificially punctuate the ends of your sentences with a 2-4 second pause. It will feel awkward to you at first, but it will seem completely natural to your audience and eventually the awkward feeling will go away. This will force you to be conscious about your individual sentences, it will preserve your breath and eliminate “nervous huffs” from your speech, and in my experience it will slow down your speech overall. Experiment with this exercise in class discussions for a while. Pausing deliberately after each sentence can be a very effective way of capturing your audience, preserving your breath, and pacing your speech.
Observation: Qualifiers – which are phrases that disqualify what you’re about to say such as “I’m not an expert but,” “I think,” and “It’s just my opinion” – don’t just happen. Qualifiers happen for a reason. We use qualifiers when we doubt our own words, don’t feel that we are an authority on the subject we’re discussing, or don’t want to be perceived as argumentative or combative. For example, I regularly hear my classmates use the qualifier “I don’t disagree with you necessarily, I just have the feeling that…” right before they present an excellent counter-argument or contrasting piece of evidence in a discussion.
Suggestion: For the next few classes be aware of when you use qualifiers. If you’re really committed, write down the qualifier that you used and why you think you did it. For example: “I said ‘I feel that’ before presenting my Foucauldian analysis, because I didn’t want my classmate to think I found her analysis rudimentary.” After class remember what you said and think about ways you could have said the same thing without a qualifier. Ask yourself, “Did that qualifier actually accomplish anything? Did it contribute anything to my argument? How would I have come across differently if I had made that point without a qualifier?.”Then, when you’re ready, try to make it through a whole discussion with any qualifiers, and check in with yourself about how you feel. Always remember that qualifiers are not necessary, even if you’re worried about coming across as abrasive without them. There’s an important difference between making an argument and being argumentative. As long as your comments are contributing to the critical analysis of a topic, and are not ad hominem, there’s no reason to qualify your perfectly valid thoughts and opinions.
- Stop saying “literally” when you don’t mean it
Observation: This one is particularly tricky for me to advise on, because it’s one of those trendy verbal habits. In many ways it’s a perfectly valid rhetorical device, a hyperbole fad (hyperbole: noun. obvious and intentional extravagant statement). It’s a way of exaggerating a statement for humor or impact. But unlike traditional hyperbole, saying “literally” when you don’t mean it, (e.g. “My heart literally stopped when I saw him with her”) puts the joke on you.
Suggestion: 1. Figure out when you say “literally” and when you note it in your vocabulary ask yourself this very annoying but useful question, “Literally? As opposed to figuratively?” 2. For a while just try to replace literally with other, more descriptive and equally compelling adverbs. Google around for synonyms, pick out a few winners, and experiment with them this week. This will direct your attention to what that specific word is contributing to your sentence, and eventually you should be able to eliminate adverbs entirely (they’re just awkward and redundant verbs!). Or just go for the classic ask your friends to flick you every time you say literally and don’t mean it. Personally, I prefer the first strategy.
Have a good weekend all – stay safe in the blizzard!