Four years ago, sitting in a conference on international relations, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t speak.
I have opinions. Lots of them – especially on foreign policy. But in grade one, facing brash peers in my IR class, the confidence I had in my political positions seemed to dissipate. At 10:09 am I walked into Goldwin Smith Hall with a specific argument about the Iraq war, only to find myself paralyzed when the class discussion began moments later. My colleagues presented their positions with such certainty that I began to question the validity of mine. I began to associate my silence with incompetence. I thought because I couldn’t speak, maybe I wasn’t supposed to.
In second year, at the request of a friend, I joined the Cornell Speech team. In one event, I made political arguments – like the ones I would have made in class – on the fly. The first time I reached a final round, the judges asked, “What should the UN in Lebanon do to help the Somali refugees? As I answered, my legs were shaking so badly that it was difficult for me to stand up. Still, I have completed my seven minutes. The next final round, my legs were shaking less.
The competition, unlike my IR lecture, gave me a platform that no fellow trumpeter could take away. With space to speak, my voice grew stronger. Three years later, as a senior, I am ranked seventh in the country for foreign policy argumentation. I lead the Cornell team and lead a separate organization, the Advocacy Project, to facilitate public speaking workshops for participants of all ages and backgrounds. I finally have confidence in my abilities as a political thinker – and as someone who can exercise, without fear, the power of her voice.
Oral argument has changed my life. But, he almost didn’t. If my friend had recommended me another club rather than Cornell Speech, I might still be gentle in class, unable to speak openly, even about a topic I liked.
Public speaking is too crucial a skill for Cornell to let students learn on their own. For the sake of anyone paralyzed in class discussions, as I once did, first-grade writing seminars should mandate an oral presentation, without notes or PowerPoint slides.
Few courses offer even an opportunity to try such an experience. Some classes, especially the discussion sections, require public speaking. Never, however, have I come across an encouraging presentation without notes.
From Speech and AdPro, I’ve learned that giving someone a script to reference while they’re speaking is counterintuitive, the surest way to interfere with their public speaking skills. If you give a nervous person notes, they’ll read them. If you give a confident person notes, they’ll probably read them too. Reading is not presenting. Reading is looking at a page, not your audience. Reading focuses on pronunciation, not on the meaning of your words. Reading makes the word official; I see my speech therapy students getting stiff just because of the formality of having a document in their hands. Equally important, there will come times in your life when you need to give presentations that you hadn’t planned on. No note can help you then.
Cornell creates degree requirements based on the knowledge he deems necessary for a full education. This year’s new first-year Arts and Science students are required to take courses in ten areas, including “Ethics and Spirit” and “Global Citizenship”. None of the lessons learned in any of these areas will matter if students are afraid to share them. If we can’t use our voices to share our education – whether to family at the table or to conference attendees – the knowledge we gain in the Ivory Tower will never really help those at the- beyond its walls.
The expression “engaged learning” resonates on this campus more than in the Alma Mater. Between the new School of Public Policy, the David M. Einhorn Center, and the wonderfully generous On-Site Service Grants, Cornell has shown an admirable focus on the application by students of their skills in service to communities beyond the campus. . However, these initiatives only encourage the involvement of students who are already participating. If Cornell is to motivate all registrants to share their knowledge for the public good, it must equip us with the public speaking skills necessary to do so successfully.
The frustrating truth about the oral argumentation workshops I run for Cornell Speech and the Advocacy Project is that students not affected are those most in need of training. The University cannot expect those who are terrified of the oral presentation to voluntarily seek it out. They can, however, ensure that they are not obliged to do so.
Require public speaking, without grades, in FWS courses. Offer students the ultimate tool for engaged learning. Inspire confidence in every Cornelian who has remained silent during a conference. Changing another life like the word changed mine.
Callie McQuilkin is a senior at the College of Arts & Sciences. She is captain of the Cornell Speech Team and CEO of the Cornell Advocacy Project. Comments can be sent to [email protected] Guest room performed periodically throughout the semester.