Public Speaking Center fosters student success

speaking_centerComing into COM 220, a course on public speaking offered by the Department of Communication, William Ray was confident, having had four years of experience of debate in high school. However, he found that public speaking was different from debate. Ray, a junior majoring in economics and math, had to “learn to be persuasive, rather than just logically overwhelming,” he said.

To move away from the debate tendencies of “cramming as many arguments into a speech as possible,” Ray decided to employ the services of the Public Speaking Center, housed in the Department’s Research Mentor Center. Over a period of ten weeks, Ray learned a lot from the one-on-one attention he received during his practice sessions, and came away with even more knowledge on public speaking than when he began COM 220.

“Those unquantifiable aspects of speaking like cadence, syllable stress, and nonverbal cues all play a role in the development of arguments,” said Ray. “It was incredibly helpful to be able to practice my speech in front of an actual person, because giving your speech in front of a person is a far different experience than practicing it in front of a mirror.”

The Public Speaking Center was born in 2005 in a room not much bigger than a janitor’s closet. Matt McGarrity, the Director or, as he put it, the “Dude in Charge,” saw an overwhelming need for public-speaking tutoring. “When it first started it was just me and the TAs. It just filled up. Fifteen people would show up at the same time,” said McGarrity.

Six years later, the Public Speaking Center has developed into a full-time help center, with the many volunteer tutors providing up to 50 hours a week of help in as much as 500 appointments per quarter. Nearly 85 percent of COM 220 students make appointments. What’s even more amazing is that these free services are available at no cost to the Department. “That is a huge educational benefit,” said McGarrity. “After initial costs of the tech fee, which was years back, there has been nothing on our balance sheet since.”

The Center is a place that allows students of all majors who need help with public speaking to come and receive constructive criticism on their work. Whether it’s a speech for COM 220, a presentation for another class, or preparation for an interview, the student tutors are always there to help.

Danica Brustkern, a junior majoring in political science and French, used the services of the Center and later became a tutor, as did Ray. Looking back on her time as a COM 220 student suffering from stage fright, Brustkern said, “I could’ve been the spokesperson for those who fear public speaking. The speaking center was useful in that there is no way to get better at public speaking than rehearsing, and why rehearse alone when you can get feedback from somebody who’s been in your shoes?”

Appointments for tutoring sessions can be made with the online enrollment system. There are two breakout rooms complete with computers with webcams that are available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Thursday. “Students can go in and record their practice, which is hugely helpful being able to watch yourself speak and receive notes from someone who knows what they’re talking about,” said McGarrity. After their session, the student’s video can be accessed on their own private UW server space for further review.

While the tutoring time slots are in hot demand, so too go the tutoring positions. McGarrity finds that former COM 220 students who completed the course successfully, and have the ability to critique, evaluate, and provide feedback, are more than happy to fill the position for the duration of a quarter. In return for three hours of work per week they can receive one credit hour for COM 499. Some even choose to forego the credit because they understand that they too are getting something out of it.

“I chose to be a tutor for the Speaking Center because it had helped me so much when I took COM 220 and I wanted to seize the opportunity to help other students. I also realized that it would be a way to continue my education on what constitutes quality public speaking,” said Brustkern.

Ray said, “As a Speaking Center tutor, we get to help students develop a staggeringly diverse set of skills that have to come together to make them successful in the course. There’s something really satisfying about teaching public speaking, and helping students discover that they already have the intuition needed to be a good public speaker.”

McGarrity says that the most rewarding thing about heading up the Public Speaking Center is being able to see vast improvement in the students who take advantage of it. “What we have as a result is people having a transformational experience,” he said. “Not only are they leaving a better speaker but they are liking the act of speaking, and are continuing to refine their art.”