How To Survive Your First Public Speaking Course


It’s the class college students dread the most; something that makes stomachs a little queasy when looking over a course schedule. It’s Public Speaking 101 (or Speech 101, or any other creative, less frightening, name the school may have come up with). It probably didn’t make the list of things you were excited about doing this semester. However, it’s now a requirement at the majority of schools, so if you want to graduate and move on to the real world, you’re going to have to get it done sooner or later.

Not everyone is born with natural public speaking abilities. In fact, most of us really do suck at it when we first start (kind of like snowboarding or playing Halo). So, when walking into your speech class this semester don’t go in thinking you’re expected to be perfect; most people around you are just as nervous and inexperienced. Just do what’s asked of you and aim to get better.

Personally I think one of the best ways to prepare for a class like this is to take advice from those who have been through it before. So, prior to giving you my pointers, I’d like to share the thoughts and opinions of some colleagues and former students when I asked what they would say to those of you taking public speaking this semester:

– “Have realistic expectations… Don’t expect to be perfect because we as teachers don’t expect that. What we do expect is that you try, practice, research, and come prepared. But we realize that everyone gets nervous and makes mistakes, it’s totally normal! It seems like the students think that they have to be perfect during every speech and that stresses them out more.” -Professor Gina Herrmann, Bergen Community College

– “Come in with an open mind. Be ready to feel accomplished after you’ve finally knocked a speech out of the park!” -Jim Vasil, Student, Rider University

– “Keep calm when you’re presenting and if you lose your place, just try to talk freehandedly about the info… don’t apologize or let the audience know you were lost.” -Victoria Perniola, Student, Kean University

– “Remember that everybody in class is in the same position, so don’t be afraid to speak in front of your peers. Be confident, know your material.” -Shane Tonery, Student, Rider University

– “Relax, have fun with it! If you take the leap and push past the nerves, you will come out the other side with some valuable skills.” -Barbara McNair, Student, Brookdale Community College

Thinking back to my first speech class I wish I had a few tips like these to ease my anxiety. The suggestions above are excellent, and I thank all of the individuals who were kind enough to contribute to this article. I have taken their suggestions and added some of my own thoughts based on my own experiences as both a student and professor. I hope you find them helpful:

Pick the Right Professor

Notice this doesn’t say pick the “easiest” professor. You want to pick the professor that has a style best suited to your learning ability. Some professors are a little bit more laid back in their approach, but if you know you need more of a push to get things done, then that kind of person probably isn’t best for you. If you’re anxious and uncomfortable, pick a professor that makes you feel at ease in some way. The first day of the semester is key for deciding if the teacher and environment is a good fit for you; so make sure you pay attention, listen to details about the class and what is expected of you. Get a feel for the professor’s personality; does it match what you’re looking for? Also, ask any questions you have after class to see how they respond. I have worked with many different public speaking professors and most of them are very good at what they do-but they are all have different approaches. Don’t just pick someone who other students say is an easy grader, because while you might get a good grade, you’ll still be an uncomfortable speaker at the end of the semester and beyond. Choose wisely. If you get a bad vibe during the first meeting then try to drop the class, switch sections, or see if the professor will work with your needs.

Read Your Syllabus Carefully

A lot of students go into the first class hoping to get the syllabus and leave early. Some don’t even pay attention to what’s in it. The syllabus is an important contract between you and your professor. It goes over everything that’s expected of you. You can plan ahead for how many speeches you will have to give, and how heavily each will be graded. If you’re unsure of something, or an item on the syllabus makes you feel anxious talk to the professor after the first class. Never wait until the end of the semester to bring up concerns that you can address right away.

Try To Have Fun

When you’re permitted to select your own topic for a speech choose subjects you enjoy and understand; ones that make you feel comfortable. It’s okay to pick something you’re already knowledgeable about, but chances are you will still be required to go get outside information. It doesn’t make sense to pick a difficult topic to try to impress the professor, only to mispronounce words or get your facts wrong. A lot of professors will also implement activities to get you acclimated to being in front of the class. Many of them can be fun, if you keep an open mind. As to whether or not you’ll be thrown into the fire and have to speak during the first meeting, that’s up to each individual professor. I wasn’t so kind; if you were in my class you were speaking from the first day on.

Follow Directions

Good professors will let you know what needs to be done and in what fashion you have to do it. Some will even go as far as letting you know exactly what you’ll be graded on for each speech. I remember having several students fail because they couldn’t follow the simplest directions (like handing in a works cited page or having a folder for materials). Make sure you read any handouts regarding assignments thoroughly, and ask any questions if there’s something you don’t understand. Also, when you get a grade back from your professor read the comments he or she provides for you, and take them into consideration for the next speech. Here’s a little secret: we usually pay close attention to areas we asked you to focus on in our previous comments.

Get to Know Your Classmates

The whole public speaking process will be easier if you become friendly with the others in your class. You can provide each other with tips and support. And when you know them, it will make the class more fun and take some of the pressure off of you. I’ve noticed students seem to be more successful in classes where the students mesh well together as a unit.

Practice and Prepare

Always practice your speeches before you give them. Whether you find a classmate, parent, brother or sister, or stranger off the street, have them listen to you give the speech a few times. This will allow you to time yourself to be sure you’re within the proper time frame. It will also help you identify any areas of the speech that might need to be adjusted.

Use Your Resources

Many schools have extra help available for speech classes. Professors usually don’t mind taking some time to meet with you during the semester to go over any areas of concern. Also, talking to other students in the class might help clarify something.

Finally, you can also contact me at [email protected] for speech consulting. I can help you through the entire process from beginning to end.

Leave a Reply