Oral Communication Fellows ease public speaking fears
Michael Vaccaro, center in pink shirt, works with, from left, Jennifer Devaney, Stanley Herrmann, Cara Rose Touretzky and Dariusz Murakowski.


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4:06 p.m., May 11, 2010----Afraid of flying? How about snakes? Or heights? For many people, a fear of public speaking tops most other phobias. And yet, between PowerPoint presentations, sales pitches and business meetings, speaking before a group has become hard to avoid.

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At the University of Delaware, students can find help preparing a speech or presentation, thanks to the Oral Communication Fellows program in the Department of Communication. Each year, a group of about 15-20 experienced public speakers and mentors make their services available to anyone on campus who seeks them out.

“There are very few formal classes in public speaking, but it's a very important and useful skill to have,” said Jo Kmetz, instructor in communication and director of the fellows program. “And it's a skill that needs to be honed. It's not something that people just automatically know how to do well.”

The fellows serve as coaches, educators and mentors, Kmetz said. They are available by appointment to help a student organize a speech or presentation and to deal with the anxiety that public speaking produces in many people. The fellows also serve as test audiences for a speech, giving the speaker practice and constructive feedback.

Sessions with a fellow can also involve practice in the use of technology, including assistance in developing a PowerPoint presentation or videotaping a speech to review and critique later.

Kmetz, who is now training her sixth group of fellows to begin work in the fall, said a wide variety of students have used the program's services. Chemical engineering professors have urged their students to seek out the fellows' advice in preparing for the research presentations they are required to deliver at the end of their junior year; international students attending UD's English Language Institute have sat in on Kmetz's peer-to-peer mentoring class so that they, too, can prepare for public talks and business students regularly request coaching before giving a classroom speech.

The fellows themselves, who are chosen in a competitive process, are communication majors who have taken a public speaking course and have done well. In addition, Kmetz said, they must be flexible (“because we never know who's going to walk in for a mentoring session”), empathic (“because there's so much apprehension about public speaking”) and good at asking questions (“because so many people need help just getting started”).

The fellows say they personally enjoy public speaking and, even more importantly, want to help others develop their skills and comfort level.

“I have worked closely with so many different people,” senior Michael Vaccaro, an Honors Program student, said. “It is nice to know that I can help people shape an extremely important life skill.”

Kate Tyrawski, a junior Honors Program student, agreed that working with students from all over campus has been the best part of being an Oral Communication Fellow. She urged students to make use of the program.

“Public speaking skills are not taught to students in every major, but they're necessary for almost everyone,” she said. “If you don't need to give presentations in class, you probably will in your job or for a club, or you may have to give a speech at someone's wedding. Public speaking opportunities are everywhere.”

Students can schedule an appointment through the program's website. The fellows meet with students in either Pearson Hall or the Student Multimedia Design Center in Morris Library.

Article by Ann Manser
Photo by Ambre Alexander