To Improve Students’ Public Speaking Skills, Use The Moth

Since about 2000 I have been associated with the global organization Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) that promotes student engagement in communities for the betterment of our lives. SIFE is appealing because it invites teams to come, first, to their regional competitions, where each team has 25 minutes to impress judges (usually sponsoring firms’ upper-level management) with the team’s projects, but also with the quality of vocal and visual presentations.

In my opinion, it seemed that an impressive and powerful presentation was a very important factor in moving onwards to the next round and ultimately to the National Championships. Great performing teams from a variety of schools have well spoken students who are experts in public speaking. These students spoke eloquently, their voices projected well , they had great body language, made good eye contact, and gestured appropriately. After one of these great presentations, that particular team’s faculty advisor had told me that obviously some of his students were “born” as great speakers, but they still spent hours and hours rehearsing and practicing. This particular group even hired a theater professor to teach them stage movements and composure.

My whole life I have always enjoyed listening to people telling stories. About two years ago I was exposed to The Moth. What is The Moth? The Moth is a popular venue in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where people from all walks of life get up on stage and tell a story, without any devices, scripts or other materials. Stories can be of any content. They can be humorous, sad, imaginary, realistic or of any other genre, and last for about five minutes. Stories are told to an audience and in some cases, judged (Grand Slams) and winners are announced. Once I heard about The Moth, I realized that I can use it in my classes to help students improve their public speaking skills.

In each of my classes I announce The Moth as a chance to earn up to 3% bonus points toward the next test. To earn the points, the student is required to come in front of the class and tell a story. Usually, the first time we do it, students can choose their own topic and later in a semester I either announce a topic prior to class, or, to make it really demanding, announce a topic once the student is in front of a class. Grading varies from only me deciding on a bonus from 0% to 3% points, to the whole class submitting a grade like a ballot vote and then I average all the numbers. The grade is based on the following points: the quality of vocal presentation, eye contact, body language, the topic discussed and the level of confidence the student has while telling the story.

Typically the larger the class, the fewer volunteers come forward. Many students are not comfortable speaking to a large audience, and some have a case of glossophobia (the fear of public speaking) and, regardless of the size of the class or the bonus, they will not talk.

However, as we get closer to exam time, more volunteers are willing to give it a try and get bonus points. It usually starts with one brave student mustering enough courage to “break the ice,” and then others follow. Incentives are amazing. Students prefer to choose their own topic and believe that their peers will evaluate them higher than faculty. Overall, they do enjoy the experience and a chance to tell others their story.

Finally, as a faculty member I realized that the age difference can play a large part in what I think is a good topic/speech and what the class thinks. Some stories that were honestly very uninteresting to me, received very eager attention and loud applause upon completion. Therefore, class reaction plays a role in my grade decision. After all, they are talking to their larger audience, their peers, not just one (older) professor.

Dr. Miren Ivankovic is an associate professor of economics and finance at Anderson University.