Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

The number one fear: Public speaking and the university student

Phillip Reece
School of Management
Murdoch University
In recent years there has been criticism of the literacy and numeracy abilities of university graduates, by members of the business community. That this should be happening, yet there is an area that no longer seems to be attended to in graduate education, that of public speaking. Many undergraduate students enter the university system with little or no exposure to the fine art of public speaking; yet in business the ability to give an acceptable oral presentation is often the key to succeeding at a senior level.

Should universities provide training in the art of public speaking and if they do, how well are they doing it? In Murdoch University's BITL school the management stream has been making oral presentations a mandatory part of the assessment of students progress, not merely as a means of assessing their learning, but also to help them develop competencies in a vital area of their future working lives. This paper will explain how the approach has been developed, examine the tools and processes which enable students to develop and some results form the students themselves.


Jerry Seinfeld, while not my favourite comedian, is nonetheless very good in his own right. He began each show, of his comedy series, with his own stand up routine, one of which asked the question about phobias. What are people afraid of? Some will answer spiders, arachnophobia. Some will answer open spaces, agoraphobia. Others will say confined spaces, claustrophobia. Now, in asking this of the audience, he then asked them what was the greatest fear that people suffered from. The answer: public speaking. He then elaborated that when attending a funeral if the average person was given the choice, they would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. If we accept the common view that public speaking is the most nerve racking of experiences, should we be surprised that university students also find that the fear is real. In today's 'knowledge society', the ability to communicate effectively through an oral presentation is a key skill (Malpeli, 1998).Undergraduate students come to university from a diverse array of backgrounds, including many already in the workplace. The vast majority have little knowledge and even less expertise in the art of public speaking (Kelly, 1998). This is a worrying situation. As the reason that some people are so successful, is that they have learned to harness the art of public speaking. To the degree that they can readily sway decision-makers, not with a better solution, but with a better presented one. This, is not necessarily a poor outcome, it just often excludes ideas and solutions that are better, but poorly presented. For those of us who teach at university, the art of good public speaking is something we need to encourage students.

Public speaking in OTB and OMD

In the course of the last two years, I have been involved as the workshop leader in two units: Organisational Theory and Behaviour and Organisational Management and Design. As the public speaking skills of many undergraduates are seriously lacking, remedial action was required. Dr Cecil Pearson, developed a program that was put in place (Pearson, 1996). It required each student, as part of a group, to give three oral presentations as a part of their assessment and to give increase their confidence. In the first two-hour workshop, we deal with the process of what makes an excellent oral presentation. This is critical. So all the students understand what is expected of them. I emphasise that employers expect these presentations to be very professional as if they fail to meet these standards, they will not be taken seriously. As a warm up exercise, I ask them to spend a few minutes talking to the person next to them, asking them to find out where they were born, their name and the intended major of study. Once they have done this, I then ask them to name a phobia, till finally some one says public speaking, I then tell them the Jerry Seinfeld story. After they get over the shock of finding out that public speaking ranks above dying, I then tell them they are going to have to do three oral presentations as part of their assessments. Next each person stands up to introduce themselves, then introduces the person they have spoken to. This continues until all the students have done so and at this point, I ask them to put their fingers on the pulse of their wrist. I then say this:
"Has anyone not got a pulse? Well, that means that no-one is dead and you have all just completed your first oral presentation, so there is no reason why you cannot do it again."
The laughter soon settles them down and allows them to get on with dealing with the problem of selecting their first topic.

The three oral presentations are all linked to topics of the course. The first oral presentation is taken from a topic that the students choose directly from the text. The second involves building a personality profile about people such as Margaret Thatcher, Ray Kroc, Kerry Packer or Princess Diana. The final presentation is linked to the organisational profile they have to build about an organisation of their choice. The first two presentations run for 15-20 minutes including time for questions from the audience. The final presentation is 20-30 minutes in length including questions. This allows them sufficient time for all of the group members to speak and to field questions from the audience (Reece, 1998a).

The process

I give very clear directions on what I expect. They are told, point blank that appropriate business attire for the men is dress shirt, dress pants, good shoes, socks and a tie; for the women it is a conservative dress or pant-suit and good shoes. Many students resent this imposition, until they have done their first presentation, then they realise that if you dress as a professional, the audience views you as a professional and they are marked higher overall.

There are other areas in which they are directed. For example, in regards to overheads, they are encouraged to have no more than six lines of text and no more than six words per line, to ensure that it can be clearly read. They are also encouraged to have a person to put on the overheads for each speaker in turn, so the audience does not lose concentration.

They are encouraged to use palm notes, cards about 5 by 4 inches, on which they have their main ideas and then place them on the speakers podium, so that they can use their hands to gesture and to have direct eye contact with the audience. They are also encouraged to rehearse their parts both individually and collectively (Reece, 1998b). A final tool is used to help them develop, this is shown below and is known as the:

OTB Oral Presentation Standards

Please mark each criterion with one of the following ND = Not Demonstrated, P = Pass, C = Credit, D = Distinction, HD = High Distinction. Then give it a mark out of 5%.

As with all presentations there are certain standards on which it will be assessed, these are as follows:

Personal (30% + 10%)
Clear speech
Lack of distracting mannerisms
Sufficient volume
Change in pitch, pace and power of the voice
Appropriate gestures/body language
Eye contact with members of the audience
Appropriate personal grooming and dress standards NB This is worth 10%

Content (30%)
Clear and consistent theme
Main points made to stand out
Appropriate handouts for the audience
In-depth research to back up conclusions and assertions

The presentation (30%)
Clear delineation between each presenter
Smooth hand over from one to another
Professional use of overheads
Palm notes
Eye contact with members of the audience
Use of questions to audience (where appropriate)

A two page synopsis is to be given to the workshop leader prior to the OP
Use of references is a requirement, approximately 5-10
Word-processed, handwritten work is unacceptable
Full identification of group members

To help develop the required skills and competencies of each student, I discuss each of the following criteria, allowing sufficient time for students to ask the appropriate questions and reflect on what each criteria means.


This first section deals with the requirements each person has to attain to personally, to be marked as having passed this particular section.

Personal (30% + 10%) - I mark this section in this manner to encourage students to see the weight placed on dress, especially, by the wider business community.

Clear speech - the student must demonstrate that they can speak in away easily understood by others. Lack of distracting mannerisms - any habits they may have such as Umm's and Err's are noted and students are encouraged to try to delete them from their spoken expressions.

Sufficient volume - for many students, shyness manifests itself in low volume when speaking to a group. I always position myself at the rear of the room and if I cannot hear them, then they are encouraged to speak up.

Change in pitch, pace and power of the voice - a whining, monotonous pitch can convey boredom, encouraging the audience to switch off. Students are encouraged to raise the pitch, pace and power of their voice, to show excitement, happiness or whatever.

Appropriate gestures/body language - many cultures do not like large arm movements, such as the Japanese. Nonetheless, gestures, facial and body language convey subtle shades of meaning, that are not lost on the audience and enhance the depth of the material presented.

Eye contact with members of the audience - this for many students is the most difficult. In mastering this, they show the audience they are in control, they know what they are going to say and they have self-confidence.

Appropriate personal grooming and dress standards - I insist upon high dress standards. Not just because I feel it is important, but because that is the standard business demands.

Content (30%)

This second section deals with the requirements each person has to attain to personally and as a group, to be marked as having passed this particular section.

Clear and consistent theme - the theme has to be not only consistent in each student's presentation, but has to be consistent and clear in each part of the whole presentation.

Main points made to stand out - it should be clear to all what the main points are. Students are encouraged to use overheads or PowerPoint for the audience to view as a means of further enhancing this.

Appropriate handouts for the audience - to further allow the audiences full involvement, handouts are mandatory. They can take the form of a simple series of bullet points, or a crossword, a word sleuth or any thing else they can devise.

In-depth research to back up conclusions and assertions - as with any presented assessable work, students are expected to do sufficient research to back up what they are offering.

The presentation (30%)

Clear delineation between each presenter - the audience needs to be told who is presenting what aspect and, each person should clearly mark of his or her relevant section

Smooth hand over from one to another - again, by simply introducing the next presenter and that person's topic, the audience can smoothly follow the flow of the presentation.

Professional use of overheads - I encourage properly word-processed overheads that are placed on the overhead projection plate, by another person.

Palm notes - palm notes, those 4*5 inch cards should contain the minimum of information. The main points and any directions about when to introduce an overhead.

Eye contact with members of the audience - good eye contact encourages the audience to become involved as it makes them feel they, personally, are important.

Use of questions to audience (where appropriate) - I would argue a question is always appropriate as it encourages the audience to reflect on what they have heard.

Written - this section goes to the workshop leader and is marked by them alone. I generally use this synopsis to make some comments about the performance of the group as a whole.

A two-page synopsis is to be given to the workshop leader prior to the OP - the contents of the synopsis are to be no more that two pages and it can take bullet point form, report or essay style. It should have a cover page, contents page and a reference page.

Use of references is a requirement, approximately 5 - 10 - the more the synopsis is referenced, generally the higher level of work that has gone into the presentation.

Word-processed, handwritten work is unacceptable - I will not accept a hand written paper, as we are all aiming to be professionals in today's IT dominated world of business.

Full identification of group members - student names and numbers need to appear on the cover page, so all members are clearly identified.

The students all are asked to mark the OTB presentation sheets that they are given.

They are asked to each mark one person from the group as each group presents, so that all group members who are presenting get feedback on their individual performance. I in my turn individually mark each person presenting and, once the groups have been marked, collate and record the marks given as an average. For all the talk, what has been achieved?


Interestingly, students are increasingly keeping the marking keys as a resource to help them improve. Last semester there were over 80% of all students who had kept them and used them as a reference for not only OTB or OMD, but to help them in other units as well. This is especially noticeable in students who have taken both units as these find it much easier to carry out oral presentations. Other students, have commented on the very confident and mature way in which they have presented. I have noticed a marked improvement too, something borne out in the research conducted by Dr Pearson and myself.

In first semester we carried out some research into what students felt they had learned form the use of workshops over the traditional lecture tutorial methodology. We developed ten questions that they were asked to rate on a 7-point scale, to indicate to what extent they felt they benefited overall. We also included a question about the oral presentations. Below are the results from the questionnaire.

Questions about workshopsN == 167

The workshop activities made me learn the material more thoroughly5.72 (1.27)
Workshops made me do a great deal more work outside of the class contact hours5.30 (1.40)
Workshops provide a higher level of participation and team problem solving6.31 (0.90)
Workshops allowed me to be involved with topics of greater complexity5.91 (0.94)
The workshops provided me with greater opportunity to experience practical management problems6.07 (1.01)
The workshops enabled me to develop better interpersonal skills5.94 (1.06)
The workshops enabled me to develop better leadership skills5.68 (1.09)
The workshops enabled me to develop better oral presentation skills6.10 (1.08)
The workshops enabled me to relate to other units in a holistic manner5.31 (1.14)
The workshops enabled me to relate what I am learning to the 'real world'5.90 (1.06)

Notes: The values in parentheses are standard deviations of the means.

The questions and the values I have highlighted are indicative that the use of oral presentations have served their purpose, not merely as a means of assessment, but in the building of skills that students often lack.

I would like to provide two examples that will relate, from the view of two students, the benefits they gained from participating in these oral presentations.

Angela's Story

It was the last workshop of semester one 1998 and one student raised her hand and told this story to the class. She stated:
I did not realise just how important oral presentations were, until I attended one this week at work, where a group of people presented a tender for a $900,000.00 contract. I watch in complete disbelief as I saw three people, senior people, whom I expected to be professional, break every rule that Phil has taught us. They could not get their overheads in the right order, did not have another person to place them on the plate, while the person who presented, kept dropping their palm notes and could not look the audience in the eye. I was appalled!! I was shocked!! These were supposed to be professionals and I realised I had learned more from the three oral presentations I did here, than these people had ever learned. I watched in horror as $900,000.00 contract went down the drain and knew, that even with my limited experience, I could have done it infinitely better.

Julie's Story

Julie is a trainee Industrial Relations Officer for her company. She said:
I found myself in front of the Commissioner and, instead of seeing his face I saw yours. I heard you clearly saying to me: 'Do it professionally, do it properly, or don't do it at all.' From then on my nervousness vanished, I relaxed and everything you had taught us came back to me and I put it into practice. By the end of my appearance, the Commissioner was laughing and joking with me, something no one in the Commission had ever seen him ever do before. It is then I realised just how much I have learned from you and this, has shaped my determination to be professional from here on.


As we have entered the information age we can no longer merely produce graduates who are technically competent, they need other skills. This includes the ability to give oral presentations that excel so that they are competitive on a broad scale, as employers are increasingly aware of the need for excellent generic and technical skills. It is therefore a necessity that we at university ensure that students leave our respective institutions with ALL the skills they require and not assume that they will pick it up as they go along. It means that as a part of the quality controls that go into our quality education, ALL the skills need to be in place to ensure that these graduates have what it takes to become first class knowledge workers of tomorrow.

Please cite as: Reece, P. (1999). The number one fear: Public speaking and the university student. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 341-347. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/reece.html

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