As you may have noticed this weekend’s posts were not the usual long discussions I have been trying to have. The reason for this has been my preoccupation with a presentation I have to do tonight in class.
For those of you who don’t know me, presentations are the bane of my educational existence. I would rather write a 20 page paper or take a 3 hour exam than be forced to stand up in front of a class and present. You would think that throughout my academic career so far–primary school, secondary school, college, and now a master’s program–I would have learned to be more at ease, and do better in presentations. I have not.
That is not to say I have learned nothing. I have learned a great deal about the “right” ways to present, although primarily these were lessons given by my father, who has to do and watch a lot of presentations given his job. I know that you must look at your audience, be engaging, that you shouldn’t write out what you are going to say word for word, that if you have power-points they should be pictures, figures, and bullet points, not a giant paragraph that you read off word for word. I understand the theory. I can look at another person’s presentation and tell you what they have done well, and what they could change. I can do that with my own presentations too, once they’re over. However, as soon as I stand up at the front of the class all of that knowledge goes away. In college, I lost an entire grade point in a philosophy class because I seemed “too nervous” when I presented (it didn’t help that I didn’t understand the material very well, I think it was on Heidegger!)
I have had ample practice at presentations (despite doing my best to get out of them). I first remember doing one at age 5 for the English Speaking Board exams that we had to do at various points throughout primary school. In high school we had to give presentations, prepare debates, and give speeches. All of which I objectively sucked at. I could write a speech, a presentation or a debate, but everything fell apart when I was at the front of the class.
So, why am I talking about this now? Well, there are two things that I want to bring up.
1. Why are we making presentations a valuable part of a class where they are not particularly relevant?
2. Why don’t we spend more time teaching children/adults how to present well?
Starting with point 1. I find it to be particularly upsetting to be working hard in a class, only to realize that you are never going to do well because half your grade is based on a presentation. It doesn’t matter how well you know the topic, how good you are at explaining it to your friends, or how much work you put into it. If you struggle giving presentations then this will not come across to those grading you and you will be penalized for it. In my 4 years at college I had one professor who told us that if we got anxious with presentations to let him know so that he could take that into account when grading it, so we would only be graded for the quality of our work and not penalized for our anxiety. My class tonight is Cell Biology, I have to talk for 15 minutes on the first half of a journal article that I spent my weekend trying to understand. I don’t understand why my ability to present should affect a grade that shows how good I was at learning and understanding cell biology.
Moving on to point 2. Despite my intense hatred of presentations I do fully understand their utility and the importance of a good presentation (something my dad instilled in me when I would explain to me what was wrong with other people’s presentations!) Being able to speak to a group from 10 to 1000 is a very important skill, and one that very few people have naturally. Just because we don’t like/fear something doesn’t mean that we don’t need to do it (as much as I hate to admit it). I think the problem is in how presentations are developed in education. Very rarely are there classes dedicated to public speaking (my boyfriend’s high school being an exception, and for those of you who don’t know him, he is an enviable public speaker. He seems to enjoy it, something I will never understand). When public speaking occurs in schools it is usually as part of another class, it is a way that you are graded on another topic. I dropped a whole grade in my college philosophy course because I was anxious. I think the system is a little backwards. I think we should have dedicated classes for public speaking style exercises from a young age (as much as I shudder to think about doing it). We need to make people comfortable with public speaking and teach them how to best engage their audience. For people in these classes, I don’t think you should be graded, merely critiqued and advised as to how to improve. For students, a lack of grade can help remove part of the fear of failure and not condition them to be scared of public speaking from an early age.
When I was 5 and did the first public speaking thing I can remember, all I remember is being really, really scared and my teacher telling me afterwards that I was too quiet. I don’t think I scored very highly either. I don’t believe in the whole “children should all be winners” philosophy where there are no winners or losers, and there are no fails, but in the case of public speaking I think that it is something far more important than just passing or failing. We all know people who suck at communicating even in a one-on-one situation, and these people may have fantastic ideas and opinions, but we will never get to hear them because their communication skills are so poor.
So, my main points:
1. Take public speaking style assignments out of classes where they are not directly relevant.
2. Make public speaking classes required, but do not grade students, just teach them the best ways to work with the skills they have.