Background scene-setting: I was in graduate school. As a graduate assistant, I taught a 101-level public speaking course. One of the major required speeches was a demonstration speech. I always encourage students to tell me their topics ahead of time so I can do what an instructor is supposed to do: Help them with their content, ideas, references, etc. This student was taking my advice. Student nodded and suddenly looked confident. Student left and I felt pleased with myself. I helped with an “ah ha” moment. I loved teaching communication already! Fast-forward to the day of the speech. Student strides to the speaking area, lays out his materials, smiles at all of us in the audience. A number of students raised their hand. My students laughed. I think I threw up in my mouth a little. Something told me that these brownies would not be the ones I’ve seen on the Food Network.

Where the speech went from here (not very far!) isn’t the point of this post. Suffice it to say, I intervened, but being a new instructor, I fumbled over the process and learned from it. Thankfully, Student didn’t have any actual “ingredient” (“Like I’m really going to give it away in class, Ms. B!” he said) on him. Student did the right thing by coming to me early about the topic. However, the alteration required an instructor reconnect. This was not the first time that a student quasi-informed me of what they planned to do and then took a very liberal twist on my advice. Or, worst, completely ran off the rails and just did whatever they wanted, despite my perception that their approach needed a change. Two students in the past few quarters who were hell-bent on delivering yet another speech on legalizing marijuana. I told both of them that if they wanted to do this topic, they needed to find a fresh, new angle on the subject.

Deliver yet the same, everyday speech on why we should legalize marijuana. I remember one speech being far more passionate than the other, but no new twist. No new angle. No favorable grade on either, mostly due to lack of quality sources. A student who wanted to bring her pet chick to class to discuss how to raise a baby chick. I said, “Live animals are unpredictable and can distract the audience so they don’t listen to your speech.” For a little levity, I added, “And, the chick might poop on the floor.” The student did bring the chick to class. The students were greatly distracted. And, that squishy chick poop stained the carpet. Every student who approaches me each quarter wanting to do a speech on quitting smoking or some form of exercise. A student who wanted a unique visual to go along with a presentation she was doing on poverty.

I suggested an image or maybe a graph with some surprising statistics. What visual aid did Student land on? A frozen squirrel, wrapped in tin foil, in a Ziploc freezer bag. Student asked the audience to imagine the smell if the bag were opened. The stench of the rotting, dead squirrel equated to the stench of poverty. And we’d better do something about it. I know what you’re thinking. What’s the communication lesson? First, tell your prof what you plan to do. I’ll elaborate on the issue of students failing to ask for any help in a future blog post. Too many students keep their ideas for papers, speeches, and projects to themselves, never gaining important feedback on if their idea is viable, credible, too broad, too narrow, too complicated, too anything. However, if your professor will be evaluating your work, doesn’t it make sense to ask that person’s opinion on what you are doing to ensure you are on the right track?

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