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.


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