This communication professor’s lesson empowers students to overcome their fears—and consider their lack of meaningful connections.
Professor of Speech Communication, Richland College, Dallas
PhD in Higher Education Administration, MA in Interdisciplinary Studies (Speech Communication and ESOL) and French
Studies have shown that most people fear public speaking more than they fear death. Sherry Dean Rovelo certainly felt that way when she was a college student.
“I had a high level of communication apprehension, including public speaking anxiety,” she says. “I was hugely influenced by my undergraduate communications professor, who offered me one-on-one mentoring and coaching and was so fabulous. At such a formative age of 18, it made me want to help others with communication anxiety.”
But their real issue, she says, runs much deeper and (for many) is not even on their radar.
Challenge: The human disconnect triggered by technology
Addiction to social media and smartphone technology, says Rovelo, has changed the face of interpersonal communication. “I have seen students become increasingly focused inward with technology,” says Rovelo. “Mediated communication, especially texting, lacks the rich, meaningful extralinguistic cues present in face-to-face communication. Addiction to being on the phone all the time makes them more connected in some ways but, ironically, more disconnected than ever.”
This disconnection has a deep impact on communication, Rovelo says. “There are professional, relational, physical, and even spiritual consequences to being so disconnected,” she says. “This little phone device in front of them [is] such a source of distraction. [It] impedes their ability to relax, be fully present in the physical environment, and hold a space for empathy.”
This inward focus can also destroy another important quality, she notes: gratitude.
Many students in her courses are what she calls “under-resourced,” meaning they lack certain advantages. Some are time-strapped, working a full workweek while taking courses on the side; others are returning to school years after dropping out, and they lack study skills. Attending college may be both a financial and a personal struggle. Sometimes these students literally do not have the time to engage in self-reflection and mindfulness, two practices fundamental to living in balance.
Even for her students who are not under-resourced, gratitude may be in short supply. “Some younger people today live in an environment where they don’t have to think about who has been good to them and who has helped them get to where they are,” she says. “This can impede relationship building and maintenance.”
These students are in for a rewarding surprise.
Innovation: Build skills in public speaking, interpersonal communication, and gratitude
A typical Introduction to Speech Communication course is likely to include a straightforward “prepare a speech that your instructor will critique” kind of assignment. Rovelo’s course still does that, but she has added a special twist.
For their final assignment, Rovelo’s students must deliver a brief Academy Awards–style speech, in which the student shares their appreciation for someone who has had a meaningful impact on their life. In doing so, they not only increase their public speaking confidence but also strengthen their aptitude for showing gratitude and communicating it in a public setting.
“My course covers multiple aspects of the human contract,” she says. “As human beings, none of us are created to be an island. We are hardwired to be in communication with each other, not live our lives on devices. I believe that some of the problems we are facing in society are due to lack of rich connections with each other.”
Rovelo should hand out a box of Kleenex along with the grades, because nearly everyone needs one by the end of the class period. “This formal act of gratitude combines a practical application of speaking skills along with an important life lesson that sticks with students long after the course has ended,” Rovelo says.
“This is my favorite class to teach because it covers so many aspects of the communication discipline. I ask students to give me 100% and promise them they are going to get a whole lot more out of this class than just public speaking.”— Sherry Dean Rovelo, PhD
Frequency: Three 50-minute meetings per week for 15 weeks
Class size: 25 students
Course description: Theory and practice of speech communication behavior in one-to-one, small group, and public communication situations are introduced. Students learn more about themselves, improve skills in communicating with others, and prepare and deliver formal public speeches. This course requires college-level skills in reading and writing.
See resources shared by Sherry Dean Rovelo, PhDSee materials
Lesson: Look Up–Look Out–Express Gratitude
Rovelo’s lesson is the students’ final assignment for her Intro to Speech Communication course. For this assignment, called Look Up–Look Out–Express Gratitude, students must thank someone important in their lives. Each student creates an award and award certificate specifically for this purpose, then writes and delivers a 3–4-minute oral presentation. They detail in personal, heartfelt terms why this person is deserving of the award. The students in online sections of the course are given the option to deliver the speech on campus or make a video of themselves delivering the award and speech to its recipient and a home audience of five people. (One student filmed himself surprising his mother at her workplace with a group of “in-the-know” work colleagues.)
Preparation for that Hallmark-card moment begins from the very start of the semester. Here is how Rovelo prepares her students to take center stage:
Share all the details early
During the first week of class, Rovelo provides all the specifics of the final assignment so that students can begin thinking about whom they want to honor and how best to do so. The details are in writing, including everything from the allowable formats of the physical award (trophy, certificate, etc.) to the formatting of the speech. Ultimately, their goal is to prove to the audience that the recipient is worthy of the award. (See sidebar, “How to Build an Awards Speech.”)
How to Build an Awards Speech
The Look Up–Look Out–Express Gratitude assignment includes the following general speech outline for students to follow. Rovelo makes it clear that the final outline should include everything that the students want to say.
A. Use an attention-getting device to begin your speech. This can be a question, a quote, a statistic, an anecdote or humor.
B. Refer to the occasion. It can be the end-of-the-semester in your speech class or another occasion that you want to create.
C. State the name of the award. Then, state the name of your awardee.
D. Present a preview of your main points. Example: “I am first going to tell you about the accomplishments of this individual. Second, I am going to share two personal qualities that additionally make (name of person) so special.”
Recount the personal worth and the accomplishments of your awardee. Your purpose is to convince your audience (build the case via specific examples) that s/he is qualified to receive your award.
A. First Accomplishment
B. Second Accomplishment
C. First Personal Quality
D. Second Personal Quality
A. Begin this last part of the speech by saying “In conclusion.”
B. Review your main points. (Remember that repetition is important in public speaking.)
C. Finish with a Memorable Statement. I gently recommend that you end your presentation with the following: It is now my pleasure to present the _______Award to ___________. I know you will agree with me that ___________is deserving of this honor. Please join me in giving ____________a warm round of applause. Congratulations and thank you, _____________!
Draw connections during in-class lessons …
Throughout the semester, Rovelo’s students learn and apply the mechanics of speech making and delivery in a variety of assignments. As a result, the Award Speech, the culminating semester assignment, often represents the student’s best work.
And during one-on-one sessions
Rovelo tells students that she needs to approve each honoree and award title, and she requires students to send outlines to her in advance. She spends a lot of time helping students craft meaningful award titles, moving from the all-too-easy “Dad of the Year” to titles such as “My Exemplar,” “Our Rock of Gibraltar,” “The Golden Heart,” and “The Pacesetter.” Rovelo also challenges her students to do background research on their awardees in order to gain a greater appreciation of the awardee’s life journey, personal qualities, and accomplishments. Providing this kind of content feedback ensures that students are on track before they present the project for a grade.
“I help students develop their speeches throughout the process, so most of the time the presentations aren’t a complete surprise to me,” says Rovelo. “And we both have a pretty solid comfort level that the presentations truly reflect the spirit of an awards celebration. Celebratory speaking is an important communication competency I want all my students to master.”
Build relationships in meaningful ways
A bigger-picture goal of Rovelo’s lesson is to overcome the disconnection caused by tech addiction. So she finds ways to help students communicate face-to-face throughout a course as well. “I make it a point to connect students to each other through dyad and group projects,” she says. “That will help to engage them in constructively evaluating each other’s presentations and assignments to the class. I also call, email, and connect with students in person both at school and off campus throughout the semester to build a mentoring relationship. To motivate students to deeper learning with love and caring is a radical proposition.”
It is one that, she hopes, will enable her students to feel buoyed by the same sense of support that she once felt from her undergraduate communications professor.
Rovelo’s lesson is having repercussions beyond her own classes. In 2018, the full-time faculty of Richland College felt that the positive impact of this lesson was so significant that they decided to implement it as the culminating assignment for all Introduction to Speech Communications departmental courses.
Students have told Rovelo that they love both the personal and professional results.
“The award speech was, by far, my favorite assignment to work on, as it was personal and from the heart,” one student wrote after the course ended. “The speech allowed me to express how much my mom means to me in a more eloquent way. Since I was able to connect with the assignment on a deeper level, it was effortless for me to present.”