Centering Students’ Voices in a Public Speaking Genre Study

Burke Scarbrough

Today’s students have access to stirring, powerful text in an ever widening array of forms. As we invite our students to discover the power of the carefully crafted written word, many of those students are even more strongly inclined to celebrate the power of language in oral performance. I’m referring to the genres and media in which artists breathe life into the written word through a sort of magic trick: they develop performances that make painstakingly crafted writing look and sound natural, spontaneous, or even effortless. In speeches that inspire, songs that transfix, movie moments that land, stand-up comedy that doubles us over, and spoken word poetry that sets fingers snapping, artists are hard at work behind the scenes—sweating the details, practicing to exhaustion.

English teachers can invite these oral performance genres into the classroom as the stuff of rigorous literacy learning. Whatever else they leave out, the Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of organizing opportunities for students to read and write in a range of forms, and as they do, to learn to see writers’ choices as careful design moves that authors make depending on their genre, audience and purpose. They should make different decisions depending on whether they’re trying to persuade, inform, or tell a story. They should make and defend choices about language depending on what sort of communicating they’re doing, and to whom. And, we keep telling them, they should read like a fellow writer and write with their reader in mind. Too often, though, school reading and writing assignments come with the substantial baggage of being business as usual in the classroom; some students read with the hope of enjoying a good story, but when that doesn’t work out, they read and write (or don’t) because they’re told to.

Bringing public speaking into the English classroom, and widening the definition of public speaking to include many sorts of oral performance of written text, lets students treat popular and engaging works as texts worth studying. It can empower students to crack the codes of texts that move them and put those codes to use in the arguments they want to make and the stories they need to tell.

A Workshop for Text and Performance

As a former high school English teacher turned teacher educator, I scratch my secondary school teaching itch these days by teaching at a summer academic enrichment program at a New England boarding school. I work with high school students who come from around the US and the world to challenge themselves with enrichment courses and try out a boarding experience before many of them encounter it in college. When they walk through the door on the first day of my Speechmaking class, they’re not chasing grades or transcript credits; they want the academic challenge that they associate with a prep school, but they also want to be excited and inspired in ways that justify their choice to spend the summer back in a classroom. This is a motivated and self-selected student population, and the class sizes are small, so the summer program has always been an exciting space for me to try out engaging teaching units before doing the head-scratching work of adapting them for the other school settings in which I’ve worked.

The structure of the summer Speechmaking class follows an approach to writing workshop I got to know well through an earlier study of a high school English class taking on spoken word poetry (Scarbrough and Allen). While some famous examples of reading and writing workshop involve letting students choose the sorts of texts they want to read and write (Atwell), Speechmaking is different in two ways. First, the whole class works together to study a single genre—speeches—as a strange and mysterious type of text that the class needs to hack. As Sarah Andrew-Vaughan and Cathy Fleischer ask students to do individually in their Unfamiliar Genre Project, I ask the whole class to join me in an inductive inquiry process: to “gather and analyze model examples of that genre, to identify key characteristics of that genre, [and] to write in the genre” (38). Students have quite a bit of choice in what they want to communicate and accomplish through oral performance, but as they make those decisions, we are there to help each other figure out the rules and moves that characterize powerful public speaking.

Second, the class treats both written speeches and the performances of those speeches as types of text that we are there to study, draft, and revise. As obvious as it might seem that delivery is its own set of skills in public speaking, we bring that point home by switching our focus back and forth between the moves that seem to characterize effectively-written speeches and the performance choices that seem to do the most justice to those words. Part writing workshop, part performance workshop, the class gives me the chance to fuse my experience teaching English and teaching drama—a pair of skill sets many language arts teachers bring to their jobs or are asked to develop after they arrive.

Cracking the Code of a New Genre

Doing this inductive study of a genre—poring over examples in order to derive important features and patterns together—empowers students to do the noticing and thinking that teachers and textbook authors so often do for them. That said, it is time-consuming to have our students derive the very things we could show them. The Speechmaking class takes something of a middle ground, using a book about effective speechmaking to get us started with some important features, and then using extended discussion of sample speeches to first look for the features we’d read about and then widen our view to other aspects of the speech that we found valuable.

Public speaking textbooks are pricey, but Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED is an inexpensive paperback that presents features of popular TED Talks through the same sort of inductive process the Speechmaking class was undertaking; Gallo reviewed dozens of TED Talks, determined what many of them have in common, and suggests ways we might do something similar in all sorts of public speaking situations. Each chapter focuses on a particular facet of effective public speaking, and it refers to numerous famous TED talks as illustrations. Of course, there is more to public speaking than TED Talks—in fact, such a lengthy staged lecture might bore or scare off many students, including those with a strong interest in a distinctly different form of public speaking (spoken word poetry, perhaps, or church sermons). Still, TED is a vast, free digital resource for storytelling, teaching, and persuasion, so it offers us a starting point as we develop our own language for effective speechmaking. Moreover, Gallo approaches the crucial but sometimes tired trio of classical appeals—ethos, pathos, and logos—as a modern set of speaking principles that students can see and hear in many of the TED Talks he cites. Students can study ethos through chapters that emphasize how good speakers unleash their passion and reveal themselves authentically through their speeches; they can consider pathos in chapters that examine how good speakers tell stories, make the audience smile, and deliver jaw-dropping moments; and they can approach logos by being exhorted to teach the audience something new and organize clear main points and supporting evidence around the “rule of 3s.”

Of course, there are many other public speaking textbooks and online primers available. I have found excerpts and sample speeches in Stephen Lucas’s The Art of Public Speaking to be useful. In particular, I have used (with permission) an excerpt about different ways speakers establish credibility, another about different approaches to introductions in speeches, and some model informative or persuasive speeches (of manageable length) written by college students. Crucially, though, our purpose is not to march through any public speaking textbook from start to finish; textbook readings are there to model and reinforce the sorts of patterns we might go on to notice as a class as we spend time responding to all sorts of speeches. A few days each week—and numerous homework assignments—are devoted to reading or watching a growing variety of texts: TED Talks, political speeches, spoken word poetry (see YouTube channels for All Def Poetry or Youth Speaks), personal stories (see themoth.org), speeches from movies or TV, videos by YouTube celebrities, and written speeches by former students. While I come to the unit with numerous examples, it isn’t long before students begin nominating all sorts of oral performances that they love, and as time permits, I challenge interested students to prepare a rationale for why a given speech is worth studying and, if their rationale is compelling, invite them to present their chosen speech and facilitate the class’s analysis.

One way to keep track of the traits of good speechwriting and delivery that we discover is to develop a shared Speech Feedback Form and update it every few days. This Google Doc rubric includes a growing and reshuffling set of traits that the class is ready to hold each other accountable for in our own writing and speaking. By the time we add a new trait to this rubric, the class has identified it as a key to good speechmaking, discussed it in the context of several speeches, and talked about tips for adapting that trait to other speaking situations. Students’ speech assignments then follow this growing rubric: for instance, once we discover and discuss “passion” and “credibility” as keys to good speechmaking, students draft short informative speeches that teach the class something meaningful to the speaker; once we become aware of an effective “rate of speech” and study how speakers make a main point clear and relatable through “storytelling” as well as “volume” and “tone” of voice, students draft and revise a speech that makes a point by telling a story (see Figure 1 for how the co-constructed rubric might look at this point); and as we go on to focus on “body language,” clear and engaging “introductions” and “conclusions,” and “content” that brings together evidence and storytelling around the rule of threes, students begin to research, draft and revise persuasive speeches on a topic that moves them. In other words, our rubric serves as common ground between the features we notice through reading and the writing and performances students develop.

What’s Worth Speaking About?

With structures in place for annotating sample speeches and assessing what students come up with, I want to make sure that my students have ways to generate speech ideas that matter to them. For some, this is as easy as pausing after the speeches we study to let students take note of possible speech topics in a growing notebook list. Upon hearing a spoken word poet or a storyteller on The Moth recount a personal story with deep significance, some students quickly identify life-altering incidents or deceptively significant small stories that they want to craft for an audience. Upon hearing TED Talks or political speeches or speeches by students addressing social injustices, some students identify issues that make them want to speak out. Others come to class already motivated to speak out about current events. And on a lighter note, a few have been interested in the rhetorical challenge of arguing a counterintuitive point, as I have sometimes done by inviting students to give me an “impossible” topic to address in a speech at the end of the unit. Past examples have included “Water: A Threat to Us All” and “The Many Uses of Rubber Ducks.”

As students brainstorm topics of personal interest, I challenge them to go one step further and consider—particularly in their persuasive speech, the longest speech I assign, and one that includes a research component—speech topics that occupy a “sweet spot” among three criteria: being of interest to the speaker, being of likely interest to the listener, and being something that many people don’t know or disagree about (See Figure 2). I also have students come to class with two potential speech topics, and for each one, a brief rationale and a few questions they wish they could ask their audience before preparing the speech. After writing this information at the top of blank sheets of paper (or posting it electronically), students pass papers from one classmate to the next, engaging in a “silent conversation” (Wilhelm) that lets each speaker read reactions and answers to a few audience analysis questions before committing to a topic and beginning a draft. Amid the hard work of reconciling their own interests with the varied responses of their classmates, speakers are learning to consider their responsibilities to an audience and to strategize about what it will take to persuade that audience.

Studying Performance As a Text

The classic features of a writing process workshop appear in the Speechmaking class: students spend time generating ideas, drafting and revising text, and giving and receiving feedback from peers and from me. But a key feature of studying the public speaking genre is splitting this workshop time between drafting and revising written speeches and drafting and revising performances of those written words. One of the first challenges I find in studying performance with students is helping students to see performance choices as choices. One powerful way to make that visible is to show students short scripts or transcripts from a video performance before they have the chance to see the performance. Many genres can work nicely with this, but I tend to use TV and movie scenes. Students read and mark up bits of text that range from a single line to a full dramatic monologue, and they use annotation markings to indicate where they would use pacing, pauses, pitch, or volume to bring the words to life. Hearing volunteers share different choices about the same text, and then turning to the filmed performance by a famous actor or passionate spoken word poet, students see how much decision-making there is in the move from page to stage. Once we began to play with vocal performance choices in this way—and, soon, eye contact and gestures as well—students are also more likely to refer to these features of speechmaking in each of the speeches we watch and discuss as a class.

Another challenge in performance workshop is getting students to commit to trying out strong performance choices, including some that might be more extreme than what the speaker will ultimately settle on. I explain this as a version of the goldilocks story: for choices about volume, rate of speech, variety in pitch and tone, emphasis through volume and pauses, or emphasis through facial expression and gestures, sometimes it is useful to make a choice too extreme in one direction, and then too extreme in another direction, before settling on a middle ground that is (for the particular situation) just right. Sometimes students practice delivering portions of a speech draft in each of these three ways, playing with what it would mean to go “too far” in one direction or another and, in the process, discovering the full range of performance choices they have available. Other times, I bring children’s books or short ghost stories to class for shared reading—for many, a familiar context for making dramatic choices about vocal delivery when reading. As we make these performance styles visible, we begin to discuss the sometimes subtle similarities and differences between reading, acting, and delivering a speech without quite sounding like one is reading or acting.

Above all, students need rounds of practice that let them try to bring words to life, get quick feedback, set a manageable goal, and try again. While there isn’t time for me to give every student individual coaching during each day of performance workshop, I try to create spaces for students to accumulate some “reps” making and evaluating performance choices. Sometimes, students pair up and practice delivering part or all of a draft speech for a peer; these sessions go best when each speaker identifies one aspect of performance that would be a particular focus in this round of practice. When technology allows (and, increasingly, it does), students might film or audiorecord their partners so that each speaker can spend time doing the awkward but private work of seeing oneself on screen. Other times, I organize students into an inner circle and simulate “speed dates” in which pairs would take turns delivering part of a speech, hear a moment of focused feedback from a partner, and then rotate to a new partner for another round of practice. Sometimes students would tell their partners what they were interested in working on with this round of delivery; other times, I would call out instructions for a given round of practice (“this time, try adding in one really dramatic pause,” or “this time, see what happens if you deliver the speech a little too loudly”). Students are often surprised how well-received their attempts are when they thought they were speaking too loudly, too slowly, or with too much emphasis on important words or phrases. Whatever they discover, the best way for them to develop performance choices that work is to have numerous rounds of low-stakes practice with the chance to see how choices look and sound to oneself and others.

An Adaptable Unit

For a final speech of the unit, I want students to have lots of freedom, but I also want us to be able to organize some speaking situations that were one step more authentic than sitting in our classroom pretending to be one audience or another. As a middle ground, I often have students choose one of several types of speeches, and the class then travels to a different space each day to hear the relevant speech: toasts in the cafeteria, stories or spoken word poems in the theater, and mini-TED Talks in the classroom. Grading student work isn’t a priority in my summer course, and the speeches that closely match our developing speech rubrics are already behind us, so we focus on positive feedback after each speech and only record them if the speaker wishes. Rather than a culminating assessment, this final speech is a low-stakes celebration; the students’ hard work and learning is evident in their annotations, discussions, co-constructed feedback forms, and many cycles of drafting, revising, assessing, and goal-setting for written speeches and performances.

Over nearly two decades of teaching Speechmaking in the summer, I have expanded and contracted the course to prioritize different speech assignments, different speaking traits worth working on, different ways of balancing textbook readings with analysis of real speeches, different ways of balancing reading and writing emphases, different ways of balancing writing and performance workshop time, and different outside-of-class expectations given students’ workloads and access to technology. What has stayed constant for me is the power of defining “public speaking” in a way that includes a variety of texts that many students already find powerful, treating students as capable critical analysts who can help author the speechmaking principles we study, and treating skilled writing and performance as important enough to hand over to students.

That said, the scope of the unit will change depending on how many students are in the room, how safe the classroom community is for sharing writing and taking risks with performance, and what sorts of work can be expected outside of class. This unit is useful in that the oral performances we study are short; each of them can be viewed, discussed, and even emulated within a class period. Similarly, the writing and performance workshop process can unfold largely or entirely during class time. With students who are less immersed in a discussion-driven pedagogy, as students in my summer enrichment setting are, I would be more deliberate in modeling the ways of annotating and responding to printed speeches. I would also ramp up to student-driven discussions by making explicit the sorts of moves that help people build on and politely challenge each other’s comments. And with students who are less likely to think of themselves as current or future leaders likely to speak in public, I would spend more time uncovering the interests and issues that might motivate students to speak out, making sure that analysis and workshop practice are clearly serving goals that students find relevant.

There are many other ways to adapt the broad strokes of this unit into assignments and daily lessons that match different school settings and learning goals.In addition to the perennial balancing acts I listed above, here are a few more choices and challenges that I’m excited to think about each time I prepare to teach Speechmaking:

  • How can I organize authentic audiences for my students? It’s not easy to create spaces for someone other than teachers and classmates to give the gift of their attention, and it’s even harder to organize this for many students at once. Often, my summer speechmaking students write and deliver speeches to the class with future audiences in mind—they write toasts for upcoming family events, speeches for student government campaigns, public service announcements about issues in their home towns, or speeches to motivate their sports teams. But I continue to look for ways to use the school, the community, and the virtual world as audiences my students can address and hear back from.
  • Should textbook excerpts lead or follow? In some ways, Talk Like TED presents the very sorts of insights I’d like my students to notice on their own. Students come with substantial prior knowledge about what moves them, so consider how you’d like to balance letting students work up best practices from studying speeches together vs. letting a text like Talk Like TED lead the way.
  • Is there time for play? I value bringing a real sense of play into the classroom, letting students enjoy the creative challenges of performance in a low-stakes setting. When time allows, one way to do this is to play theater games; I recommend Glyn Trefor-Jones’s book Drama Menu as a useful compendium of fun games that get students working together to make performance choices. Another way is to practice impromptu speechmaking, in which students draft speech topics they’d be excited to take on, and then they are assigned one of these at random. (There are also many lists of fun impromptu speech topics available online.)  In a first round of practice, students might have three minutes for jotting a few main points on an index card plus one minute of practice speaking to the classroom wall before turning and delivering the short speech to a partner. After a round or two like this, students might get only 30 seconds to think (no jotting) before it is time to speak. Once they are reminded that this is a nearly impossible challenge, many students are excited to give it a try.
  • How much work can I hand over to students? For classrooms with widespread technology access, consider letting students take charge of choosing and presenting analyses of speeches in class. A service like Vibby (www.vibby.com) lets users highlight and clip specific segments of YouTube videos, helping presenters move seamlessly from one highlight to another as they share their thoughts or pose questions to the class. Users can also post and respond to comments on each video highlight. A different approach to involving most students more of the time is to adapt a Toastmasters meeting format for a class (or, through a fishbowl structure, half a class at a time), distributing the work of giving prepared speeches, giving short impromptu speeches, giving oral feedback to speakers, and running the meeting itself (“Club”).
  • How can I make self-assessment and feedback quicker? Technology is making it easier to integrate cycles of practice, feedback, and self-reflection into the unit as students work on speech performances. A variety of apps can capture audio or video and, if necessary, push it to storage spaces for students and teachers to review. Consider ways to help students get quick access to recordings of their own rehearsals, describe what they notice, and set a goal for their next attempt.

Oral performance is a vital part of language arts, and it is too often either neglected or relegated to elective courses and after-school experiences. Workshop and genre study pedagogy gives students the opportunity to analyze, draft, revise, and “publish” oral performance in many of the same ways, and in service of the same learning standards, that teachers readily apply to print genres. The more widely teachers can define “text” (and “public speaking”) in the classroom, the more that literacy learning can emerge from forms of art that truly stir students’ passions.

Works Cited

Andrew-Vaughan, Sarah, and Cathy Fleischer. “Researching Writing: The Unfamiliar-Genre Research Project.” English Journal, vol. 95, no. 4, 2006, pp. 26-42.

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle. 3rd ed. Heinemann, 2015.

“Club Meeting Roles.” Toastmasters International. www.toastmasters.org/membership/club-meeting-roles. Accessed 29 August 2017.

Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014.

Lucas, Stephen E. The Art of Public Speaking. 11th ed. McGraw Hill, 2012.

Scarbrough, Burke, and Anna-Ruth Allen. “Writing Workshop Revisited: Confronting Communicative Dilemmas Through Spoken Word Poetry in a High School English Classroom.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 46, no.4, 2014, pp. 475-505.

Trefor-Jones, Glyn. Drama Menu: Theatre Games in Three Courses. Nick Hern Books, 2015.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension. Scholastic, 2002.

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Fig. 1  How our co-constructed feedback form might look by the time of a “Storytelling Speech” assignment

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Fig. 2  What makes a good persuasive speech topic?