Poise, confidence and the ability to command a room – public speaking can be a powerful, versatile tool for your academic and professional toolkit.
It is extremely rare for a career path to not require public speaking at some juncture, and the benefits of being a good public speaker also extend to one’s personal life – from giving toasts at family functions, to speaking up in a town hall meeting at your neighborhood council meeting.
While public speaking is required of most of us at some point, look to any survey that polls the “things people are most afraid of,” and public speaking will appear at the top of the list, oftentimes above getting struck by lightning and shark attacks. Even if you generally consider yourself a confident person, or feel qualified to discuss a chosen topic, something about going to the front of a room to speak to a large group causes most people some form of anxiety.
Training in public speaking can go a long way to erasing any self-doubt, and give you an advantage down the road. College is an excellent time to take risks, and is the perfect time to perfect your public speaking skills. Beyond basic public speaking courses that you can take as a part of your degree’s course load, there are many other ways to improve your public speaking skills while at college, which we’ll explore in this article.
Going Beyond Public Speaking 101
Most traditional public speaking courses follow a similar format: You will be exposed to different strategies and tips to effectively communicate your ideas, you will prepare your own original presentation, and present it to your classmates, who then offer constructive feedback. It’s a ubiquitous model because it’s effective. You can only improve your public speaking skills with feedback, and analyzing others’ approaches and providing feedback can further enhance your own skills.
While fundamental public speaking courses can help boost your public speaking skills, it’s also important to develop the specific presentation skills that are required in your targeted post-graduation industry. These bespoke communication skills can also be found through college courses. Below are some example courses from top-tier schools that diverge from the approach of the traditional Public Speaking 101 class:
Stanford’s ENGR 103: Public Speaking course breaks the mold as it focuses on public speaking specifically for engineering students. Even if your passion is to work in the lab, you can’t escape having to share your findings or teach the next generation of technicians. While STEM fields are not widely considered to require excellent public speaking skills, STEM practitioners who do possess excellent communication skills will have a distinct advantage when moving from entry-level to management positions.
Within Northwestern University’s School of Communication, you can dive deep into the theory and practice of communication through its Strategic and Organizational Communication Module. This module focuses on preparing students to anticipate real-world communication situations, with courses like Bargaining and Negotiation, which get students ready to tackle high-stakes communication challenges through experiential exercises and role-playing.
University of Southern California (USC)
USC is home to a top-tier film school and is in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the most creative cities in the country, which makes it a prime location for resources on how to present yourself. USC’s Public Speaking as Performance: A Course for Non-Actors draws on acting techniques to approach public speaking, even if you aren’t aiming to win your own Oscar any time soon.
New York University (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts
New York City is a hotspot for the arts, especially performance arts, and NYU Tisch is one of the most prominent arts undergraduate schools. Even if performing on stage is not your chosen path, you can take advantage of the industry-recognized faculty and passionate peers through NYU’s art courses for non-majors.
University of Pennsylvania, Wharton Undergraduate
Being a good business person is all about being an exemplary communicator. At one of the best undergraduate business programs in the country, you can complement your studies in marketing with a more in-depth exposure to communication through a dual concentration in marketing and communication.
Pre-college and Summer Options
If your course load is packed to the gills with core requirements, you may want to consider taking on a summer course to broaden your public speaking skillset. There are a wide variety of options available, and working on these skills in the summertime will give you an opportunity to focus on strengthening them during a low-stress part of the year.
If you are still in high school, a pre-college course can also provide the dual benefits of exposing you to the challenges of college-level coursework, and help you get a leg up when preparing for your college interviews.
In Brown’s Public Speaking for the American University Experience, you have the opportunity to practice “argumentation, interviewing, and formal multimedia presentations.” If you are an international student looking to apply to a top-tier university in the U.S., specialized resources such as this one will go a long way to helping you feel prepared.
Public Speaking, through Harvard’s Drama department, is open to students of any experience level, which makes it a safe space to take a risk if public speaking is currently your #1 phobia.
Despite its catchy title, Public Speaking: Romancing the Room is a “practical approach” to public speaking training, and provides exposure to essential on-the-job skills such as interviewing and persuasion.
University of Pennsylvania
Public Speaking in the Age of TED talks provides a unique approach to the art of the “sound bite” and communicating on screen. With YouTube and TikTok shrinking the public’s attention spans, this course can give you a head start on becoming the next influencer in your chosen field.
Any college alum will be quick to tell you that some of the most valuable leadership experiences and learning opportunities during college will happen outside of the classroom. By collaborating with your peers to achieve a goal, you gain hands-on, real-time practice of the skills and situations you’ll encounter once you’ve graduated and entered the professional world.
To that end, you can refine and enhance your public speaking skills through active involvement in one of your college’s extracurricular resources, with the added bonus of making your resume more competitive.
The skills you must develop to become a champion debater will make public speaking in your career a breeze. To prepare and compete in a debate competition, you must utilize sophisticated research skills to prepare your case, and be able to nimbly anticipate counter-arguments to your position in a timed competition against your opponent. This is a fast-paced, adversarial variant of public speaking, but if you can hold your own in a debate, stepping up to give a straightforward presentation at work will feel easy.
It is also worth noting that in some professions, most notably a career in politics, you must be comfortable in an actual debate setting. This extends to many other careers as well, such as law or journalism, in which being prepared and comfortable with argumentation will enable you to excel in your field.
The American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) determines the rankings of U.S. university debate teams and their performances. Some highly-ranked debate teams include:
- The Cornell Speech and Debate Union
- Princeton Debate Panel
- The Georgetown Parliamentary
- Yale Debate Association (YDA)
- Brandeis Academic Debate and Speech Society
- Harvard College Debating Union
If a less competitive version of public speaking appeals to you, Toastmasters is a national non-profit made up of a network of chapters across the country, and many college campuses will have their own Toastmasters club. Toastmasters offers certifications for different levels of achievement in public speaking, however, the main benefit of joining the club is the opportunity to practice your public speaking skills, and receive constructive feedback on your presentation and delivery of speeches on prepared and impromptu topics.
Acting and Drama
College is all about trying something new, and is the perfect opportunity to have some fun and stretch yourself creatively through theatrical productions while you improve your public speaking skills.
Most auditions for mainstage productions in college are open to all students. Even if you aren’t destined to play the lead, a supporting role is still an exercise in performing for large audiences, and can push you outside your comfort zone – the two main anxiety-producing elements of public speaking.
Nothing says “college” like an improv troupe performance (except, perhaps, an a cappella group serenading a group of passing freshmen walking through the quad). Improvisational theater is a type of acting in which the content is made up on the spot, often with random prompts to create the “scene,” so it’s not a stretch to say that improv can lead to enhanced public speaking skills. Improv can also help you develop your humorous side. It’s easy to think that some people are born with the ability to crack jokes, but in reality, funny people are always practicing their riffing skills, and joining an improv club can be a great way to strengthen your spontaneous reaction abilities.
Get Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone, and Behind the Podium
College is the perfect time to hone your public speaking skills. No matter which career you plan on pursuing, you will benefit by being comfortable with standing up and sharing your ideas. Whether you are outgoing, shy, measured or gregarious, effective public speaking skills are inside of you, and you’re only a class or club away from unlocking them.
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