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Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail:

Stanford courses help to develop students' speaking skills

"You created a sense of anticipation. You really wanted us to enjoy your talk."

With those encouraging words, Doree Allen eased an undergraduate student in her course on "The Art of Effective Speaking" into a critique of the presentation she'd just given. Then, one by one, classmates offered their takes.

"You made a lot of eye contact, but you seemed a little nervous, too," one young woman suggested.

Allen nodded in agreement, and expanded on the observation.

"I know you were anxious, but I think you succeeded in translating that into energy and excitement," she added. "You were telling us, in effect, 'I believe in what I'm talking about.' And in your next presentation I think you'll feel freer to take time we're talking nanoseconds here to slow your pace a bit."

As coordinator of the program in oral communication that is based at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), Allen is leading Stanford's charge up a challenging curricular mountain helping students learn to speak more articulately. In the School of Engineering, David Lougee wages a similar battle for coherence with his Technical Communications Program.

At a time when headlines and sound bites are railing against, um, like, mallspeak and teenbonics whatever a number of institutions are addressing more fundamental academic concerns.

"For a long time, the elite universities did not teach oral communication," Allen says. "The assumption was, 'If you get into our school, you should have this skill.'

"But we've come to recognize that when you're trying to produce well-educated, well-rounded students, they need to have speaking skills as well as writing skills. And these skills are not particularly natural everyone needs help with them."

That need was spotlighted in 1994 when the Commission on Undergraduate Education recommended that the university "provide students instruction in oral communication."

Four years later, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching suggested that "the failure of research universities seems most serious in conferring degrees upon inarticulate students."

Today, Stanford is in the vanguard of schools, including Brown University, Mary Washington College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, the University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan College and William and Mary College, that are taking steps to correct incoherence.

"President Casper approached us about four years ago to ask if we'd be interested in developing a program for oral communication," says Michele Marincovich, assistant vice provost and director of CTL. "We made a proposal for a pilot program, which he funded, and the key was finding the right person, in Doree, to head it up."

Allen, who has a doctorate in English and a master's degree in communication from Stanford, also brought a background in theater to the position. She had taught freshman English and had been a lecturer in the "Europe and the Americas" track of Cultures, Ideas and Values.

Three days after beginning the job, in fall quarter of 1996, Allen launched her first workshops for Sophomore College. Since then, she has developed four courses in oral communication for undergraduates and graduate students, and set up a video and audio laboratory in Sweet Hall where students who are preparing for classroom presentations, oral defenses, departmental colloquia or professional conferences can give dry-run talks and receive feedback from trained student speech tutors.

"A lot of public speaking manuals deal with hard and fast sales, and are written for people who are out in the marketplace," Allen says about the books she read in the process of designing her own courses. "I didn't feel that they really attended to how complex it is to move from written discourse, with its complicated language and ideas, to spoken discourse."

Last summer Allen also taught for the third time a popular course for the Continuing Studies Program. "Creatively Speaking: The Skills of Oral Expression" uses oral interpretation of literature as a basis for learning speaking skills.

In a typical academic quarter, Allen gives a dozen workshops. She is invited by such diverse groups as the program in Writing and Critical Thinking, Honors College, Sophomore Seminars, Freshman Introductory Seminars and various graduate student groups.

"There's a lot of anxiety around public speaking, and if people can put it off, they would generally prefer to," she says. "But when they realize there are ways to make speaking easier, they're very receptive to the training, and that's why I'm constantly trying to reach people who really want help."

As a number of programs on campus begin to address the issue of oral communication competency, the new Freshman/Sophomore College expects to hire a full-time consultant. Andy Lam, a student who was trained by Allen, already is living in the residence as the first oral communication tutor.

This past summer, Allen also provided four oral communication consultants for Sophomore College who lived in the dorms and were available to videotape students and work with them at all hours of the night. Faculty members teaching in the program are just as enthusiastic.

"Each year Doree works with my students to give them the confidence and training necessary to present their thoughts to others," says Richard Zare, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor of Natural Science, about the help Allen provided for students in his Sophomore College course, "Origin of Life."

"The integration of this oral presentation into their quest for explaining the origin of life has been a highlight of the course, one that has prepared my students with special strengths that will serve them long after the material in this course has been mostly forgotten."

Now that Allen has reached more than 800 students in workshops and courses, Marincovich would like to see the oral communication program make the transition "from a workshop-based model to a curricular one."

"Ultimately, we'd like to facilitate the development of at least one speaking-intensive course in each department," Marincovich says. "It would be up to the department, of course, to decide whether it would be a gateway course, a capstone seminar or some other choice."

Meanwhile, back in "The Art of Effective Speaking," which Allen taught in autumn quarter and will reprise in winter quarter, students are learning how to size up messages and audiences, as well as how to control their voice and bodily movements.

"The first 60 to 90 seconds are the most important in your talk," she tells a senior who is developing a presentation about working with at-risk youth. "You want to be as clear as possible when you begin, and you may want to start by personalizing your concepts with a story.

"Where the alchemy comes in, is in figuring out who you are as a speaker and what your goals are in reaching your audience."


By Diane Manuel

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