August 26, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Public Speaking Changed My Life. Require It for Freshmen.

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Four years ago, sitting in an International Relations lecture, I was surprised to find I couldn’t speak. 

I have opinions. A lot of them — especially about foreign policy. But freshman year, facing brasher peers in my IR class, the confidence I had in my political positions seemed to dissipate. At 10:09 a.m. I’d walk into Goldwin Smith Hall with a defined argument on the Iraq War, only to find myself paralyzed when class discussion began moments later. My colleagues presented their stances with such surety, I began questioning the validity of my own. I began associating my silence with incompetence. I thought because I couldn’t speak, maybe I wasn’t meant to.

Sophomore year, at the urging of a friend, I joined the Cornell Speech Team. In one event, I crafted political arguments — like those I would have made in class — on the fly. The first time I reached a final round, the judges asked: “What should the UN do in Lebanon to aid Somali refugees?” While I was answering  my legs shook so hard that it was difficult to stand. Still, I filled my seven minutes. The next final round, my legs shook less.

Competition, unlike my IR lecture, gave me a platform no trumpeting colleague could take away. With space to speak, my voice strengthened. Three years later, as a senior I’m ranked seventh in the country for foreign-policy argumentation. I captain Cornell’s team and run a separate organization, the Advocacy Project, to lead public speaking workshops for attendees of all ages and backgrounds. I am confident, at last, in my abilities as a political thinker — and someone who can wield, not fear, the power of her voice.

Oral argumentation changed my life. But, it almost didn’t. If my friend had recommended another club over Cornell Speech, I might still be meek in lecture, unable to talk openly, even about a subject I loved. 

Public speaking is too crucial a skill for Cornell to leave students to learn by themselves. For the sake of all who sit paralyzed in class discussion, like I once did, First-Year Writing Seminars should mandate a spoken presentation, without notes or PowerPoint slides. 

Few courses offer even one opportunity to attempt such an experience. Some classes, particularly discussion sections, require public speaking. Never, however, have I encountered one encouraging presentation without notes. 

From Speech and AdPro, I’ve learned that handing someone a script to reference while they talk is counterintuitively, the most sure way to hurt their public speaking abilities. If you give a nervous person notes, they will read them. If you give a confident person notes, they will likely also read them. Reading is not presenting. Reading is looking at a page, not at your audience. Reading is focusing on pronunciation, not the meaning of your words. Reading makes speaking seem official; I see my Speech students become stiff just because of the formality of having a document in their hands. Just as importantly, there will come times in your life when you’ll need to give presentations you didn’t plan. No notes can help you then.

Cornell creates degree requirements based on the knowledge it thinks is necessary for a full education. This year’s incoming Arts and Science freshmen must take courses in ten topic areas, including “Ethics and the Mind” and “Global Citizenship.” None of the lessons learned in any of these fields will matter if students are afraid to communicate them. If we can’t use our voices to share our education — whether that be to family at the dinner table or attendees at a conference — the knowledge we acquire in the ivory tower will never actually help those beyond its walls. 

The phrase “engaged learning” echoes around this campus more than the alma mater. Between the new School of Public Policy, David M. Einhorn Center, and wonderfully generous Serve-in-Place grants, Cornell has shown admirable emphasis on students’ applying their skills in the service of communities beyond campus. These initiatives, however, only encourage involvement for the students already participating. If Cornell wants to motivate all enrolled to share their knowledge for the public good, it must equip us with the necessary public speaking skills to successfully do so.

The frustrating truth about the oral argumentation workshops I lead for Cornell Speech and the Advocacy Project is that the students not involved are the ones most in need of training. The University cannot expect those terrified of spoken presentation to voluntarily seek it out. They can, however, ensure they don’t have to. 

Mandate public speaking, sans notes, in FWS courses. Give students the ultimate tool for engaged learning. Inspire confidence in every Cornellian who has sat silent in lecture. Change another life like Speech changed mine.

Callie McQuilkin is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She is the captain of the Cornell Speech Team and the CEO of the Cornell Advocacy Project. Comments can be sent to [email protected]Guest Rooms run periodically throughout the semester.