Students share insight on effective communication

What does it mean to be well-spoken? Students who have taken “Public Speaking” or “Persuasive Public Speaking” say the experience transformed their understanding of the art, convincing them of the power that good public speaking has to connect speaker and listeners.


The first few times Kate Vonderhaar ’10 spoke in front of her speech class, she felt like “a speeding train on fire. My face flushed and I spoke very quickly. I’ve always spoken quickly in daily conversation, and I tend to speed up when I’m giving a speech.”

To help his “Public Speaking” class gain confidence, Professor Josh Compton assigned the students to create “visual metaphors” of their speaking anxieties. They then presented a speech on that topic, using the images as visual aids.

“I realized that speaking so quickly adds to my anxiety as I rush to get the next word out,” says Vonderhaar, pictured here with her own drawing of a runaway train. “I learned to slow down and take my time, which reduced my anxiety and made me feel more in control.”

“I took ‘Public Speaking’ to improve my ability to speak in front of people—something I will definitely need and use beyond Dartmouth,” notes biology major Kate Vonderhaar ’10. “I went into the class thinking that public speaking was about me: if I could speak well, it would reflect well on me.” Now, she explains, “I think a lot more about the audience: Why should they be listening to me? What information can I convey to them? How can I do so in the most effective way? How can I help them care about this topic?”

The best public speaking, says Lecturer in Speech Josh Compton of Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, doesn’t depend on a tool kit of tips and tricks. A speaker shouldn’t rely on techniques to make her come across as sincere; she should, instead, simply be sincere. At almost any other college, Compton says, speech courses train students how to give speeches. At Dartmouth, theory matters as well as practice. “We read, think, and speak about speech,” he says, “not only focusing on the product, but the process.”

Following a two-year hiatus, Dartmouth reintroduced speech courses to the curriculum in 2008. “I am really glad speech is being taught again,” remarks Kevin Liao ’11, of Beijing, China. “Writing and speaking are essentials skills to master to communicate your ideas, no matter what you do.”

Here, three speech students share ideas from what they’ve learned with Dartmouth Now readers. Their advice on how to approach speaking, connect with listeners, and communicate messages with authenticity just might help you ace your next presentation!

“Writing for the ear is different from writing for the eye. Among other things, your audience can’t turn back a page to re-read a point you’ve made. Craft your speech accordingly.” —Kate Vonderhaar ’10, Wheaton, Ill.

“Approach public speaking almost like a conversation. Actually engaging with your audience greatly reduces anxiety.” —Bharath Mohan ’10, Little Rock, Ark.

“Always have your audience in mind, from when you are first thinking about a speech to when you are actually delivering it.” —Kevin Liao ’11, Beijing, China

“A good speech is not about the speaker. That is, the speaker delivers the information in a way that is meaningful and relevant to the audience and doesn’t make him or herself a distraction.” —Kate

“Eye contact matters: I now make eye contact with the people sitting in the front row, and I try to make eye contact with everyone in the audience.” —Bharath

“Be explicit about where your speech is headed and why your listeners should care.” —Kate

“Keep things simple. Simpler and more focused ideas, and simple organization and structure make a stronger speech.” —Kevin

“Use pauses deliberately between words, sentences, and transitions.” —Kate

“Memorize ideas rather than sentences. Going off script is not the same as going off message.” —Bharath

Kelly Sundberg Seaman