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Video for audience adaptation

The Bob Newhart Show has an excellent example of both a failure and a success in audience adaptation. “Tracy Grammar School, I’ll Lick You Yet”  (season 1, episode 2) features Career Day in a third-grade classroom. Several people are invited to speak, but the teacher declines to invite her husband, a psychologist, because she thinks he is unable to adapt his tone for children. When another speaker cancels, though, he is invited. The brief speech we see him give flops due to several factors, many outside his control. It bothers him and he asks to speak again, changing his approach and having success with the audience.

As a quick in-class example, I would suggest using the fireman’s speech and then Bob’s failed speech and talking about things that can go wrong in a speech and how to deal with them. Some things are in the speaker’s control — his opening questions are inappropriate to the age of the audience — but some things are not — the fireman was passing an ax around and it was distracting, he was the last speaker before lunch, a fire drill, etc.

Another use for this episode would be as a written assignment or longer group discussion in class. The entire episode could be assigned and then students asked to discuss all of the speakers and the things they did both right and wrong to prepare for their specific audience, including the role of the visual aids and questions they asked in advance.

The episode is available at Hulu, on sale at Amazon, and sometimes through On Demand on the Sundance Channel.


Checklist for speech preparation

The blog at Prezi recently featured “The Ultimate Presentation Preparation Checklist.” The list does not focus on writing the speech itself, but on the context of the speech, particularly audience adaptation and delivery.

The list has 18 questions that the presenter must ask when preparing for the speech, which are sorted into five categories, and then suggestions for using that information. The questions cover issues about the setting — will there be a podium — and about the audience — are they going to be a captive audience?

The list could be turned into a homework assignment, to have students assess the class as an audience before one of their own speeches. It could also be offered as reading material to students.

Link to article


Suggestions for written assignments

Although students were quick to remind me that this was a speaking class and not a writing class, I liked to have brief written assignments spread through the semester. It allowed me to see what kind of examples the students could generate on class topics and to provide a little bit of a grade boost to those with stronger writing skills than speaking skills. I did these in two formats — reaction papers and a group scavenger hunt.

Reaction papers

One way that I did this was through reaction papers.

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Written assignment for interpersonal comm: Identity

This is a brief written assignment that I would offer students as an option to help them appreciate how groups work to create and communicate their identities.

This could be modified to require students to take photos of the ads or it could be made into an assignment for a brief class presentation or group activity.

Find three different examples of ads or announcements presented by groups on campus. These can be found in the school newspapers, in posters or fliers, or in sidewalk chalk messages. Briefly describe the group that created the ad and where you found it. Review the ad and describe how the language and symbols used help to define the group’s identity and to target their desired audience.

Written assignment for interpersonal comm: facework

This is a brief written assignment I’ve used to encourage students to find examples of facework:

Find and describe one example from a “non-scripted” TV show or online video where someone makes a face-saving move to attempt to avoid embarrassment. “Non-scripted” refers to a video where the participants are not following a set script and errors would not be edited out, such as reality television or a live news report. Describe why the face-saving was necessary (what threatened their face), how the person attempted to save face, and whether you feel the face-saving move was effective.

A note on graded outlines

There are different ways to approach the outline assignment. You can have them all turn in an outline a week or so before the speeches and return them soon afterward or you can wait and have students turn in the outline on the speech date. I used a middle ground — staggered due dates. The students were assigned a speech day and their outline was due two classes before that day. That gave me one class to collect them and one class to return them. The advantage of this is that you do not get the outlines all at once and it is fair to the students because they all get the same amount of time with their outline comments.

The outlines themselves should not be worth very many points. I explained to my students that the outline will take a lot of time and be a lot of work, but it is the place to make mistakes. Because there are few points at stake here, any mistakes will not count heavily against you like they would in the speech so it is your chance to find and correct mistakes before the speech. I also tell them that I will grade the outlines assuming that everyone is planning for an A+ speech.

Outlines are best turned in on paper. I would

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In-class exercise for visual aids

Have the students work in groups to create a simple visual aid for a set of statistics. Any easy-to-understand set of numbers will work — I used the season stats for the quarterbacks for the local NFL team. Challenge the groups to find the clearest way to present those statistics in visual form. Share their results with the class and talk about strengths and weaknesses of each option.

This idea could be further developed and given as a written assignment as well, perhaps requiring computer-generated visuals.

Web resource for persuasion

Link to article

This “New York Times Magazine” article by Michael Lewis challenges conventional thinking on tipping for service. It could be assigned as a written project or class discussion with a challenge for students to create and defend counterarguments for the traditional view.

A written assignment for interpersonal comm: nonverbal

Photo courtesy of Simpsons Wiki


This is a very popular paper with students (and they are a lot of fun to read). It works best after the reading assignment or class discussion of nonverbal communication issues like environmental artifacts and territory.

Visit and observe both a fast-food and a “sit down” restaurant. Consider how space is used in each setting. For example, how much space is between tables? How comfortable is the seating? What kind of lighting and sounds are featured? What are the dominant colors in the space? What generalizations can you draw about how and why the fast-food and “sit down” restaurant are different? Choose one of the restaurants and identify a norm that would be inappropriate at the other type of restaurant. What would happen? How does the design of the building help to communicate these norms? Describe two ways these norms are communicated and enforced.

A written assignment for group or interpersonal communication

This assignment about norms could work well for group or interpersonal communication. This is often a popular one with students. It may be a little harder to do at a small college, but works well in a mid-sized school.

Sometime during the final month of the semester, attend a class that you are not enrolled in this semester. (One way to do this would be to attend a class with a friend.  Your friend may want to get prior permission from the instructor.)  Identify what class you attended, what date and what time the class met. Did you feel like an outsider during the class?  Did the class communicate or behave in ways that you could not understand? Name three of the group’s unstated rules or traditions (norms) that you observed during the class. Name at least one norm that was not helpful to the group’s goals (discouraged participation in class, etc.) If the leader (the professor) wanted to change the unproductive group norm, how do you think they should go about doing it? Do you think all classes develop unique characteristics?  Why or why not?