BY SARAH LIGGETT, PHD
Christopher Witt, a management consultant and author of the blog Communication Matters, recently posted an entry, Improving the Speech Delivery Skills of Engineers, that caught the attention of the CxC team. Witt writes, “Engineers aren’t generally regarded as dynamic presenters, and yet I spend little time trying to improve their delivery skills.” He gives three reasons:
(1) “there’s not enough time,”
(2) “other things are more important than delivery,” and
(3) “there’s a better way to improve their presentation skills.”
The first point is a given: there is never enough time in any field to teach everything we want students to know and be able to do. But what is really more important than delivery? And is there really a better way?
Since time limits are not unique to any field, it is important to learn how to quickly evaluate the purpose for a presentation and what information can/should be covered and your audience. That said, seasoned presenters may need less time to organize a talk, but no matter what stage you are at in your career, everyone needs critique in delivery to be able to deliver a truly engaging speech that gets others excited (about your research or ideas) and ultimately moves the audience to action (generating funding support or job offers).
Perhaps without knowing it, Witt argues outright for attention to three of the five canons discussed by classical rhetoricians such as Aristotle and Cicero: invention (purpose), arrangement (organization), and style (clarity, conciseness, and completeness). And while Witt never mentions memory as such, he does help clients practice their presentations until they have “internalized their message.” But what about the final canon—delivery? It seems to me that Witt does in fact teach delivery when he encourages presenters to act natural, but speak a bit louder with more pronounced gestures.
So while Witt’s initial argument on its face seems counter-intuitive to CxC pedagogy, his approach actually supports CxC pedagogy in most regards. Like many C-I faculty do with their students, Wit teaches his clients to focus on higher order concerns (purpose, audience, content, organization, etc.) before later order concerns (sentence structure, word choice, usage, punctuation, style). And although he doesn’t “have time” to partake in video recording, in Communication-Intensive (C-I) courses and in CxC Studios, where we do have—or at least—take the time to develop delivery skills, we know the uncomfortable, yet significant growth that students achieve when they are able to self-evaluate their presentations. Little—but significant—things like eye contact, speech pace, and gestures can be taught quickly, improve over time, and take little time to point out.
At the end of the day, an amazing delivery* cannot make up for lack of knowledge or ideas. But a poor delivery can severely impair the effective communication of knowledge and ideas. The two go hand-and-hand and must remain priorities for us across all disciplines as we teach students to be strong oral communicators.
*Note: Strong delivery is not defined by comedic approaches or slides overrun with images. Rather, it focuses on a presenter who draws you in, helps you clearly understand why this information is important, and motivates and inspires you.