Teaching Rhetoric As a Liberal Art

One of my colleagues two years ago “roped me in’ to helping him teach public speaking.  It’s been enlightening to me, because while our students are not particularly accurate public speakers, they are enthusiastic.

We play a number of games in public speaking class.

  • Rhyme or Reason: stand in a circle.  One person says a word, and then play passes to his/her left.  The next person in line must say a word that rhymes or matches that word’s definition in some way.  Any player may challenge the new word if they feel it doesn’t match; if the challenge is upheld by the group’s vote, the person speaking the out-of-place word is out.
  • Invent a story: We have a box of randomized index cards with various concepts on it.  One player starts telling a story, and then gets a word from the box.  The player must use the world within 1 minute, or they’re out.  Once they use the word, play passes to the next person.
  • Random Speech: Drawing from the index card box, the player gets a topic.  Player must speak on that subject for 1 minute without using “um”, “uh,” or “like” (except that they can use the last one in a simile).
Yet despite all this, we live in a society that does not value public speaking nearly enough.
The Republican debates alone prove it.  So do the President’s more recent speeches.

I went to a presentation this past week.  None of the speakers could speak for 30 seconds without using ‘uh’ or ‘um’, or ‘like’, and it sounded as if they were unprepared.  I was disappointed in what I saw and heard — as much for the quality of what they presented, as how they presented it.  As Edward Tufte has said, we’re well into the realm of “death by PowerPoint.”

It’s amazing to me that the best advice I can find about speaking in public, even after two thousand years of trying to improve upon it, remains the work of pseudo-Cicero, Ad Herennium, which lays out a vast range of legal mindsets and positions to argue before the courts, a variety of frameworks for speeches, and the way to train your mind to speak your piece effectively.

One comment

  1. Great post Andrew. My favorite book on public speaking is “You Are the Message” by Roger Aisles. I haven’t read Cicero though so can’t make the comparison. Really enjoying your blog these days.

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