Managing speech days

Some of the most difficult days in class can be the days where students give speeches. If people don’t show up, you might have only two speakers ready to go and be uncertain whether to just let class out early or try to fill the time. Or a student may panic partway through their speech. Or several students may show up and say they’re not ready and can they go another day. Or a major news event may be on everyone’s mind, making it hard to focus on class. I have been in all of these situations.

Here are a couple of things I’ve learned:

  • Set expectations early: My syllabus is very specific about speech days. Students are told that rescheduling a speech comes with a 20% point penalty and exceptions are made only at the professor’s discretion. I point this out during my syllabus overview during the first day of class and also let them know that you can pass the class with that 20% deduction once, but not twice. I’ve read advice to focus on the positive, i.e., “You will still be eligible for 80% of the points for the assignment,” but have not noticed a major difference by changing the wording.
  • Have a “catch-up day”: Rather than constantly reshifting speeches if someone misses their assigned day, I use two methods. First, someone missing a day will be told they are on “standby” (like an airline). If a free slot opens up during the round, they will be asked to speak. This means that they need to be prepared for each day for the rest of the round. If I can’t fit them in that way, the second approach is to move their speech to a “catch-up day.” This is a day late in the semester where their entire class is scheduled to be makeup speeches. Students who have no makeup speeches to do are allowed to skip this day without penalty. For extra fun, I try to put it near a school break, like the last class before Thanksgiving or spring break. I also let them know about this on the first day of class.

  • Have an attendance policy: I hated them as a student but can understand the need for a policy in required classes. My policy allows for several misses (I never need to see a note, for example, until someone exceeds that number). I let students know that the policy is to encourage attendance on speech days because students will not get the full experience of practicing speeches unless they have an audience.
  • Get set up before you start: I ask my students to set up visual aids and other materials before any of the speeches start. Long breaks watching students struggle to figure out if a visual aid would work made the class drag. It also allows a speaker with a failed visual aid some time to regroup. I don’t start until all of the speakers have their stuff ready (downloaded and minimized for computer files).
  • Keep the speaking order flexible: Some professors have students sign up for their order as they come in. I never did that largely because I encourage nervous speakers to go first and they don’t need the extra pressure of getting to class early to sign up. I post the order from my assignment sheet but let students know I will make changes if requested. I also allow students to place standing orders to always go first and note that on the assignment sheet. At times, I’ve moved a student to first because I thought it would help them.
  • Take a break if needed: If a student panics and can’t finish, try to be as encouraging as possible and let them know they can move to the next day when there is an opening. I will also contact the student (or catch them) after class and try to set up a meeting to find a strategy and talk about a reasonable point deduction (if someone tried to go I will not take the whole 20%). This has worked well and has not been abused by people just trying to buy time. This is for extreme cases only though, usually my first reaction if someone starts to lose it is an encouraging nod and maybe asking a question based on where they left off to help them find the flow again. If a student runs for it (I’ve had a few) then ask the student who normally sits next to them to see if they can check on them. I’ve found this to be less disruptive than me leaving class. Anytime things get tense, call a short break and try to look busy readjusting the grading sheets or visual aids to let everyone calm down.
  • Be flexible when needed. My students were giving speeches on the morning of 9/11. The TV in the building lobby was on and students were gathered there before class started. The orders from the university were to proceed with class as planned. Wow. I did take the step of dismissing students from New York or DC to check in with family and then started speeches. Many students, understandably, strayed from their planned topics and I allowed them to do so. The school’s basketball team heading to the NCAA finals can be just as distracting, of course, and some flexibility may be required at that point as well.

One problem I never figured out how to solve on speech days is what to do when students go over their allotted time. Not wanting to interrupt and draw attention to the problem, I just let them go and work it out in the grading with an overtime point deduction, but I was never sure if that was the best way. What have you heard or tried to deal with long-winded speeches?

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About teachingpublicspeaking

I believe public speaking can go from most dreaded class to favorite class. I'm a former public speaking college instructor who spent years seeking out activities, assignments and examples to make the class interactive as well as educational -- they are collected here. I welcome suggestions for additions.

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