Why Public Speaking Textbooks Suck

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The field of public speaking and presentation has been transformed by 21st century revolutionaries such as Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, Guy Kawasaki, and Seth Godin.  With the introduction of TED Talks into popular culture and with a focus on visual communication principles as opposed to death-by-PowerPoint, those standard academic textbooks feel stale and corny.  More offensively, textbooks also ramble on for 600 or so pages about concepts most students would classify as “common sense.”  Does a college sophomore really need to read a textbook to understand that he or she should speak to a kindergarten class in a different way than he or she would speak to a crowd of senior citizens?  Does a college student need to read an entire chapter on listening?  Give me a break!

My next goal is to change my school’s Public Speaking textbook from a standard academic textbook to something more student and learning centered.  Imagine being 19 years old and being asked to read 4 chapters a week about public speaking and presentation.  Now imagine being that same 19 year old but imagine that you selected your school based on its nontraditional format and non-academic real-world application… How would you feel if you were asked to sit in a classroom and learn that standard, outdated public speaking model taught at Every University USA in 1990?  Lessons on vocabulary words and the history of public speaking won’t help ANY student learn how to present effectively.  The students at my school aren’t even seeing that essential connection between public speaking and their future career, and that’s shameful.

I’ve spearheaded a campaign to get rid of a particularly ineffective textbook and associated online platform at my job on behalf of my students.  The book has been a noose around the course’s neck for the last four years, and I find that students don’t like it, don’t get it, and don’t understand how it applies to everyday life.  Students most certainly don’t enjoy reading this textbook if they even pick it up to read at all.  The online platform tied to that book was, unfortunately, smoke and mirrors.  The publishing company promised lots of great things, but all students got were technological errors.  The past few months have caused staff to feel exhausted, overworked, and burned out, but they have been even worse for students.  Students are disappointed, frustrated, and pissed.

I compare these angry students with the students in another course I teach: Professional Communication and Presentation.  These students read Nancy Duarte’s Resonate.  These students can read the entire book in a month because it’s only 200 pages and 9 easily digestible chapters.  What’s more, the book uses 21st century public speaking and presentation concepts and applies this material to students’ everyday lives.  I’ve found that students quote Resonate, cite it in their speeches and in their class discussions, and say things like, “I’ve never read a book for school before, but I read and really, really liked Resonate!”

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So why am I so anti-textbook in a public speaking class?  There are three reasons.  First, presentations are broken, and very few textbooks remedy that problem.  In fact, most textbooks contribute to the dilemma of ineffective, presenter-centered, stale, forgettable speeches.  Second, the textbook market is broken.  “Like many industries, educational publishing has experienced a wave of consolidation in the past decade or two. Jeff Johnston, vice president and executive publisher of a Pearson-owned division that publishes teacher materials, said there were about 30 college-textbook publishers when he started in the business in the late 1970s.  ‘There are about five now,’ he said” (Source).  I can see and feel that the market for public speaking and presentation textbooks is limited because every single textbook looks exactly the same and produces the same results: bad presentations.  Not only are presentations and textbooks broken, but, third, the entire system of education is broken.  We know lecture doesn’t work, but we force students to just sit there and listen to a professor ramble on and on for hours.  When that professor is rambling on about the content in a boring book, of all things, nobody wins.

Imagine this… You’re a student sincerely trying to learn more about public speaking and presentation.  You’re presented with a textbook (Google “public speaking textbook” for an example).  You’re asked to memorize said textbook for a test.  You’re required to sit down and listen to a teacher lecture at you for an hour a day in a way that isn’t learning-centered or engaging.  You’re expected to deliver a speech based on textbooks and boring lectures.  What you end up doing as a student in this scenario is memorizing vocabulary words for a test and never understanding how those terms relate to public speaking.  You also never really get to participate in effective public speaking and presentation.  This creates a cycle of misery for students and for these students’ future audiences.  And I see it as my job to break that cycle because I am a member of the presentation revolution.

On broken presentations, Nancy Duarte says, “In general, most [presentations] are broken.  You would know that based on the level of the engagement of the audience.  A lot of audiences are upset.  All you have to do is look at the Twitter stream after the presentation and you know they’ve either checked out or do not have great things to say.  We need to fix it” (Source).  Duarte continues, “Oration – a person standing up and pronouncing what they know onto other people is common […] People approach their presentations in the same way they do a research paper.  Presentations should really be about story and about human to human connection” (Source).

Until I realized this, studied this, and lived this, as a teacher, I wasn’t doing my job properly.  Teaching is my art, and obsessively studying 21st century public speaking and presentation is what took my teaching to a level of effectiveness I could never imagine.  Ethos3 sums it up well in their latest deck on Slideshare:

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If you teach public speaking and plan to keep lecturing at your students, you’re not doing it right.  If you plan to keep using your textbook and your bullet-riddled slides, you’re not doing it right.  Do your job correctly by making a commitment to learn your craft.  Become a real presenter do it right by joining the presentation revolution.  Start here.  And, for goodness sake, please start by ditching your textbook.

If you’re interested in student-centered alternatives to textbooks, I highly recommend the following books for your public speaking and presentation class: Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, Resonate by Nancy Duarte, Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, The HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations by Nancy Duarte, and – I’m told – How To Deliver A TED Talk by Jeremey Donovan which I just ordered last night and plan to devour next week as soon as it arrives.

What book do you recommend for public speaking and presentation courses at the community college or university level?

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6 thoughts on “Why Public Speaking Textbooks Suck

  1. You are right,public speaking is more practical and should remain so.
    At school level giving speeches,recitations,debates were common and one just was
    taught the basic tips of standing up and facing the audience and giving your best shot.
    Nervousness was there but one prepared for it and got through to the best of ones ability.
    I never ever referred to textbooks on Public speaking also was not aware that such existed as modern technology was yet to be discovered.
    Maybe if they did I would have got some tips to make my performance better.
    Concise information is necessary than full fledged TBks.
    I have a free E book on Public Speaking to give away.

    Beginners and newcomers as well as those who wish to learn and understand this Art,

    may register now for free at http://www.talkingforsuccess.info

  2. I like Randy Fujishin’s “The Natural Speaker”. I was always assigned textbooks to use in class from “on high” but worked in as much of his book as I could. Most of the rest of the assigned book was ignored, by me and by the students.

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