The Live Audience in Online Public Speaking Courses: One More Try

After reading the varied posts, I’m convinced we (as an academic discipline) don’t have any evidence for the claims that a live audience is either effective or necessary in online public speaking courses. 

Although instructors noted how they handled this issue of a live audience, no one produced any evidence. In fact, I don’t know of any research showing that assembling 6 or more people and presenting a speech to them will improve someone’s public speaking skills more than will delivering it to a camera. If there is evidence, beyond the anecdotal, I’d much appreciate learning about it.

Some people report that there is inherent value in presenting a speech to a live audience. This may well be true (though I’m not sure) but perhaps an online public speaking course is not the place for it. We cannot provide students with experience in every type of public speaking situation. After all, the live audience that the speaker recruits is unlike any audience he or she will ever meet again. So, we are not really providing experience in facing a live (and realistic) audience.

Perhaps the online public speaking course should be focused on online public speaking—webinars, podcasts, videos on YouTube. Public speaking does not depend—for its definition or its existence—on a live audience. That’s just the way it has been for centuries; technology has changed that.

At least one person expressed the need to keep the online and the live classes as similar as possible. To this I would ask: Why? Why not two courses, each of which addresses a somewhat unique (but largely overlapping) set of learning outcomes.

In terms of education and training, perhaps we should focus on what each context does best—the online public speaking course for online speaking, the traditional classroom for live speaking. Even here, however, there is room for choice—the online class student could also give a speech to a live audience and the traditional class student could also give an online presentation. The key here, I think, is student choice, not requirement. Most students I’ve met, know what learning experiences will be helpful to them in life.

There seem conflicting views on the difficulties involved in requiring a live audience. Some seem to shrug it off as if it’s of no consequence while others acknowledge the dislike that students have for the requirement. My own feeling is that the difficulties are a great deal more than most instructors realize. I suggest asking your online students some simple questions like: How much time is involved in recruiting, assembling, and disassembling an audience? Are obligations to audience members incurred as a result of this requirement? Is this a good use of your time? Was it worth it?

I think the answers will be eye-openers and I think you’ll also find that requiring such a live audience—made up as it is of friends and family--adds to the already negative view that students have of public speaking (as well as to their level of communication apprehension). Why compound this with requirements that have not been shown to be effective or necessary? Why complexify a student’s life without evidence that the requirements are essential to the learning of public speaking? Why make public speaking a dreaded chore with needless hurdles rather than a course that students enjoy as well as profit from?

It seems reasonable to assume that most students allot their time among their varied courses, giving some courses more time and others less.  Similarly, each assignment is likely to be allotted a certain block of time—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. If this assumption is even partially true, then the time spent on recruiting a live audience (and the subsequent obligations)—all of which have nothing to do with public speaking--is time taken away from the research, construction, and rehearsal of the actual speech. I’m not sure this is time well spent.

In short, a live audience for online public speaking courses has not been shown to be effective or necessary to the learning of public speaking skills; it adds unnecessary hurdles, increases apprehension, and likely intensifies the negative view that many have of public speaking; and it takes time away from those activities that are directly related to public speaking.

And, it needs to be added, there are other more efficient and probably more effective ways of teaching the student to face an audience, whether live or online. For example, having the student construct a speech with a specific audience in mind (perhaps for listeners who are opposed to the thesis or favorable or lacking in knowledge or uninterested in the topic or college athletes or gun control advocates or police recruits or engineers—the list is limitless)—as I suggested in my previous post—would, it seems, help the student learn how to address different (but realistic) audiences in a more efficient and more enjoyable way.


The Audience in Online Speaking

The following post was sent to the basic course list (Basiccc@lists.udayton.edu) in response to a number of instructors explaining how they incorporated the live audience in an online public speaking course. But, I thought others might be interested in the issue. It's an important one and one that is sure to increase as online courses become more numerous.

I’ve read with much interest how various basic course instructors deal with online public speaking assignments. Many (perhaps most), it seems, require the student to deliver the speech in front of a live audience which must be video scanned. This requirement is surely well-intentioned, designed to enable the student to experience presenting to a live audience in as realistic a setting as possible. However, I think there’s a downside to this practice and I’d like to argue that it isn’t necessary and in many ways is counterproductive.
Public Speaking is a difficult course for many students, often because of their communication apprehension. Requiring them to round up 6 or 8 or more people to sit in the audience only adds to this anxiety and makes the course—for some, at least—an even rougher experience than it would be without this requirement. Public Speaking should be a course that students want to take, not something they dread taking.
If the aim of this requirement is to give the student practice in analyzing and adapting to an audience, it falls short. The audience is a fake one, made up of available friends and family; it’s not an audience that the student is likely to face in real life. Nor will these friends and family act and react as would a real audience.
There are other ways of giving the student practice in audience analysis and adaptation. For example, the student might select an “audience” to address: the audience of Fox News, at-risk high school students, followers of Yoko Ono on Twitter, the basketball team, NRA supporters, the PTA—or in fact any audience that the student would find useful in his or her anticipated profession. The student would then indicate—on the submitted speech text, outline, or audience analysis form —the analysis and the adaptations made in the speech for this specific audience. Should the course also include during-the-speech adaptation (a really advanced skill and one I have never seen demonstrated at any NCA convention presentation, for example), specific scenarios can easily be developed—several members of the audience are focused on their cell phones, some members look puzzled, a few members are shaking their heads in disagreement. Here again the student would indicate the chosen strategy for dealing with the cell phone users, the confused, or those signaling disagreement.
There are no doubt many other ways to ensure that the student learns the appropriate skills of speaking to an audience. And similar experiences can easily be developed to teach any of the other skills that might be taught and learned from dealing with a live, even if fake, audience. Requiring a live audience is not the only way.
Requiring the student to assemble and video a live audience not only adds to the student’s burden, it burdens the 6, 8, or more people that must assemble at a specific time, listen to a speech they may not be interested in, and then return to their respective spaces and continue with what they were doing. If you multiply the number of speakers by the number of audience members required by the number of speeches by the length of the speech, the resulting figure can be quite high even for a class of 20 or 30. Factoring in the time to select, request, assemble and return makes it too high (at least as I see it). This time and energy can surely be better spent by both speakers and audience members. And, it needs to be added, much of this—asking friends and family to drop what they’re doing to listen to a speech—has nothing to do with the principles and skills of public speaking.
Consider too the obligation that the speaker now has to these people; they did him or her a favor and favors require reciprocity. The speaker, by the very nature of the assignment, is required to violate the negative face needs of each of the audience members. That hardly seems fair or justifiable on the basis of teaching the skills of public speaking that can easily be taught in other ways.
The practice of requiring a video scanned live audience, as I see it, is not the only way to teach audience analysis and adaptation (or any other public speaking skill), adds to the anxiety of already anxious students, forces students to impose on others and incur obligations as a result, and wastes an enormous amount of time and energy that has nothing to do with public speaking.
None of this is not to say that the customary practice of having a video scanned live audience should be prohibited; it may be an option—one that I see as having considerable downside but one which some students might like and profit from. But, it should not be a requirement.