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Wanted: black students in public speaking classes

As each semester begins I anxiously await to see the ethnic composition of my public speaking classes. And each semester I find myself lecturing to a class that is more than 80 percent white and 20 percent people of color.


Rarely does the latter percentage represent Black and African-American students. So we must ask the question — Why? Do these students not see the importance of such a class? Are they intimidated or uncomfortable taking part in this class?


Unfortunately, we may not want to hear the answers to those questions. Even though research has shown that developed communication skills are important for all students, still the interest is not apparent. Part of this lack of interest has to do with the fear of public speaking. However, considering that public speaking is ranked in the top five of societal fears, we can conclude that it is an issue for everyone and not just Black students.

But it is important to focus attention specifically on the African-American student and public speaking.p One argument suggests that students feel as though there is no need for such a class. No one needs to teach them how to talk or speak. So what purpose does this class serve? That is the same reasoning given by many students at historically Black colleges who feel it is not necessary to take Black Studies courses because they are Black and already submerged in the culture. They are wrong.


There is a need for all students to take a communication skills course. Just like any other subject matter, there is a process in achieving and delivering a successful speech. A public speaking course teaches the skills of organizing ideas and being able to articulate them in a variety of settings. Without some experience or prior knowledge, it is difficult to actually succeed at doing so.


The most upsetting aspect of this issue is that African-American students feel intimidated and sometimes uncomfortable participating in a public speaking class. Many students assume they have to assimilate into what is deemed “correct” or “proper” language and speaking styles.


This is where communication professors can teach their students that it is not necessarily incorrect to use slang terms or phrases while delivering a speech. However, students must remember the setting in which they are speaking and make sure the audience is appreciative and knowledgeable of those words. If not, the message is not conveyed in the manner which the speaker had hoped.


So students do not need to assimilate. They are simply learning to be “bilingual,” in a sense: knowing the occasions and environments to speak or use certain language. But again, this is true for all students. For instance, it is improper for any speaker to use a swear word at a religious function. More importantly, students should concern themselves more with delivery tactics and less with “proper” language.


Delivery tactics are sometimes downplayed by those of us teaching public speaking. Professors tend to stress students’ verbal skills over the nonverbal skills. But, it has been suggested that African-American students actually use more nonverbal skills in their public speaking techniques.


These students are more animated with their facial expressions, body movements and hand gestures than most other racial and ethnic groups. The nonverbal techniques are used to further stress or “drive home” the message one is trying to communicate. Professors must be cognizant of this fact, so as to include all of their students in the various speaking assignments. These nonverbal skills are just as important as verbal ones; and we should be willing to foster those inner talents of our Black students.


The aforementioned points may encourage more Black students to register for public speaking. However, the main argument is that public speaking skills are critical for many entry-level jobs. Employers seek employees with excellent oral and written skills, which include: listening, writing, oral reporting, motivating, and small-group problem-solving.


Many of these are skills acquired in communication courses such as public speaking. A study of alumni of public speaking courses found, with overwhelming consensus, that these faculties were used frequently in their professions. Even more interesting is the fact that individuals with exceptional communication skills — in particular, listening — are promoted more often and hold higher position levels than those with less than outstanding listening skills.


As students prepare for future careers, it is imperative that we stress the components of their education that will help them succeed. A communication skills course should definitely be included in that discussion. Black students must recognize that in a complex work force already overflowing with many bright, articulate and business-savvy individuals, they too must develop the same qualities in order to be competitive. I look forward to the day African-American students acknowledge that trend and begin composing a larger percentage of the students of color in mine and other public speaking classes.


Kimberly R. Moffitt is the publications manager of The William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is also a lecturer in communications at Boston College.


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