In a 2017 study, 63.9 percent of college students reported fear of public speaking – a high number for a population who will be assigned to make oral presentations for a grade in the immediate future. Two speaking-intensive courses are required for the completion of any undergraduate degree at UNCG and, beyond the degree, many careers require effective speaking and presentations.
Fortunately, UNCG students can receive one-on-one consultations to work on oral presentations and general speaking skills at the University Speaking Center, now in operation for 15 years.
The center directors Kim Cuny and Erin Ellis describe the peer-to-peer individual consultations as non-instructional and judgement-free.
“We meet students where they are and we move them forward,” said Cuny.
Dianne Garrett, lecturer in the Bryan School of Business, frequently sends her students to Speaking Center consultations.
“Afterwards, they tend to hold themselves with more professionalism in approach and in execution,” she said. “The speeches are more organized and polished.”
Interior architecture professors Dr. Maruja Torres-Antonini and Felicia F. Dean have their Basic Environmental Design III students receive coaching from Speaking Center consultants throughout the semester, on design proposal projects that are meant to mimic real-world presentations to clients. The instructors film the students’ initial presentations and the Speaking Center consultants view the films with the students individually and help them make changes for a final presentation.
“We’ve found that the quality and efficiency of our students’ verbal presentations improve significantly with this approach,” said Torres-Antonini.
The center is staffed with four graduate and 45 undergraduate consultants who have completed a course in Speaking Center theory and practice. They’re not only prepared to do individual consultations in interpersonal, public and group communication, but also to conduct group trainings and workshops.
In the context of developing spoken communication projects, the consultants are prepared to address technology issues, such as how to put a PowerPoint presentation from a phone on the classroom projector, or how to record a speech for an online assignment. They offer conversation practice for non-native speakers of English and coaching for advanced speakers preparing to make public presentations. The Speaking Center is also a safe space for students working on their identity presentation, if they are in the process of changing their gender or cultural identity.
Beyond its hallmark one-on-one consultations and class workshops, the Speaking Center consultations conduct workshops with tutors from the UNCG Student Success Center and the Graduate School’s new teaching assistants.
During the past year, Cuny and Ellis collaborated with Professor of Biology Bruce Kirchoff on a workshop titled “Communicating Science,” which was open to any scientist in the area and drew participants from NC A&T and Bennett College as well as from UNCG. Cuny and Kirchoff plan to hold more “Communicating Science” workshops this fall.
“The students seem to enjoy the process,” Kirchoff observed about those who have attended Speaking Center consultations and trainings. “They appear more relaxed having had the chance to practice prior to their formal presentations.”
Consultants also facilitate workshops at nonprofits, such as Peacehaven, a farm and housing community for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and those workshops can become part of graduate student research and teaching portfolios.
UNCG’s University Speaking Center faculty, students and alumni frequently receive awards at the National Association of Communication Centers Conference for their research and records of service. At the 2017 conference, communication studies graduate student Taylor Williams received the Outstanding Graduate Tutor Award.
Cuny describes all of the consultants as strong interpersonal communicators who have a passion for helping others, and for learning from their experiences with students and other speakers.
“We’re one of the places on campus where students can make connections,” she said.
By Susan Kirby-Smith
Photography courtesy Taylor Williams