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At a Loss for Words

By Brett D. McLeod
At a Loss for Words

Human history is a story of both flux and constants. Among the constants—and one repeatedly catalytic in shifts both seismic and subtle that is largely responsible for who, what, and where we are today as individuals and peoples—is the power of certain personalities to awaken, persuade, and compel others to action. And how did they achieve this? Verbal exhortation.
It is no different now. Regardless of domain, those who possess the “gift” of oratory continue to command our attention and influence outcomes that affect us all, be it at work, with the technologies we use, the beliefs we hold, or the votes we cast. But oratory is no “gift.” Innate to no one, it is rather a learned skill, one that requires practical instruction, courage, endeavor, and continual refinement if a level of proficiency is to be attained.
Given the power of oral communication, why do schools not place greater emphasis on speaking? Is it that students are already sufficiently endowed with the capacity? No. The majority of them would likely admit that they are deficient in the skills and confidence needed to address an audience compellingly. Ask many adults and their response would likely echo the same.
Not knowing how to do something properly and being expected to succeed at it under public scrutiny is frightening. About this, we can all agree. We instinctually know the consequences of failure. They range from personal mortification to ridicule and even the possibility of social exclusion. Is it any wonder, then, that glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, should top the list of common phobias (Duarte & Chamorro-Premuzic)? That it ranks above the fear of death is even more telling. Yet we expect students to be able to speak with efficacy both at school and in their future professions.
Like most fears, the fear of public speaking is rooted in uncertainty. However, given sufficient knowledge, training, and practice, glossophobia’s paralyzing hold over us would be surely abated.
As a school administrator, numerous observations of classroom presentations over the years have revealed that there is a real want of knowledge among students as to how to convey information and opinions cogently. This is neither the fault of students nor that of teachers. The latter duly provide instruction on what is expected in terms of information and its conveyance. Encouragement and constructive feedback have been consistently observed, while the great majority of students invariably strive to deliver their best.
So why are our young people falling short of their potential as speakers? Essentially, because oratory has been dismissed to make way for other academic disciplines deemed more relevant. Yet what could be more relevant to those with a voice than the capacity to speak well?
While technological trends have resulted in an upsurge of digital communication and won plaudits from schools excited by the promise of their utility, they have also engendered greater insularity from the real world. Concomitantly, the oral communication skills of young people have suffered. Findings from a survey conducted in 2015 by CareerBuilder, a popular American employment website, support this. Results revealed that some forty-one percent of employers considered the oral communication skills of young job seekers inadequate for their hiring needs (Elliot). Alarmingly, these job seekers were all college graduates.
Clearly, the neglect of serious instruction in the discipline of speaking is impeding the prospects of our youth and concurrently that of our social, political, and economic progress. As it stands, “listening and speaking make up as much as 75 percent of adult communication, yet represent just 25 percent of (Common Core State) standards” taught in schools (Palmer). The degree to which public speaking figures in the former statistic is unstated, perhaps not even known, but the endemic fear of addressing an audience affirms the need to better school our young people in oral communication. Currently, opportunities for students to learn how to speak in a way that elicits interest, commands attention, and generates admiration are insufficient. Consequently, the potentiality of leadership among them is diminished.
If it is truly the aim of schools to outfit students with competencies needed to be a force for positive change in our world, then too many are guilty of a grave, albeit unintentional, disservice when it comes to teaching speaking. It is time for those of us in education to seriously reevaluate the importance of oral communication. And we need to do so quickly. Oratory must resume prominence in school curricula. Our young people both deserve and require the confidence of voice necessary to meet not only personal challenges but those certain to confront their generation. Indeed, as the very embodiment of our future, we all have a very real stake in ensuring that their voice is an effective one.
Elliot, Megan. “Five skills college grads need to get a job.” USA TODAY, 03 May 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Duarte, Nancy and Tomas Chamorro-Prenuzic. “Assessment: What’s feeding Your Fear of Public Speaking?” Harvard Business Review,/i>, 28 Nov. 2016.
Palmer, Erik. “Why Schools Need to Do a Better Job of Teaching Speaking Skills.” Education Week Teacher, 10 Feb. 2016

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