Speaking up and being heard

Csilla Farkas had two goals in mind when she attended a recent workshop on improving vocal presence in the classroom.

"I want to improve my speaking skills as a lecturer and in other public speaking venues such as professional conferences, and I want to help my students improve their presentation skills," said Farkas, an associate professor of computer science and engineering.

Farkas and about two dozen other faculty members and graduate teaching assistants with similar goals attended the Center for Teaching Excellence-sponsored workshop, led by a theater faculty member who specializes in voice coaching.

"Anxiety prevents some people from getting their volume up," says Erica Tobolski, an associate professor in theater. "Others are holding their bodies in such a way that it prevents their message from being heard."

Reasonably easy fixes for those problems involve breath control, better body mechanics ("Don't let your knees lock up while lecturing," Tobolski advises) and tongue-loosening exercises. Tobolski took the workshop participants through a few rounds of those activities, which demonstrated how effective even a little preparation can be. Brad Stratton, director of the Center for Business Communication in the Moore School of Business, plans to share those practical tips with students.

"We work a lot with students, helping them improve their presentation skills, be less nervous and be more dynamic speakers," he says. "I'd heard about Erica's work and didn't want to pass up a chance to take her class. This is the type of course that would be pretty expensive in the private executive education market, so it's very cool that CTE is offering it to faculty."

While the 50-minute workshop hit the foundational aspects of vocal presence, Tobolski stresses that strong communication involves more than physical steps.

"Being heard takes a holistic approach. It's not just breathing technique or how you're standing — those are important, but there's more to vocal energy than that," Tobolski says. "It's really how you connect with people in a way that draws them to what you're saying."

To illustrate, Tobolski describes three circles of talking. In circle one, the speaker talks in a mild tone that forces listeners to strain to hear the words. In circle three, the speaker talks loudly — everyone can hear what's being said — but there's little personal connection or engagement with the audience.

The goal for speakers is circle two, in which your voice is loud enough to be heard, but, more importantly, you're making eye contact with different members of the audience, Tobolski says. Even in a large classroom, students will sense that the lecturer is looking directly at some of them, which helps to draw everyone's attention, she adds.

"People who are inspirational speakers engage with us in such a way that we can pick up what's important to them," Tobolski says. "We can hear what they care about. We can perceive what they want us to remember. That's what all of us are aiming for in improving our vocal energy."

The Center for Teaching Excellence will sponsor another 50-minute workshop on vocal presence in the classroom Sept. 17. Registration is required. A limited number of spaces are still available for a multisession Short Course on vocal presence that begins Sept. 16. 

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about