Connecting the Talk to the Audience

“In New Jersey v. TLO, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the appropriateness of the application of the exclusionary rule.  The Court overturned the lower court ruling in a 7-2 decision and held that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

What does that mean?  I heard that during a student presentation about landmark Supreme Court cases.  I can’t challenge the accuracy of the statement because that is exactly what the Court did.  I can challenge the appropriateness of the statement for the listeners.  Most eighth graders are probably not familiar with “certiorari” (though if all students are researching Supreme Court cases, the listeners in that situation may be) and probably no eighth graders understand what the exclusionary rule is.  What we have here is an example of a student presenting information without any consideration of the audience.  It happens all the time in our classrooms.

Here is what happened in the situation above: the teacher gave each student a case to research; she gave them a date for an oral presentation; she required certain content (name of the case, decision of the case, law the case was based upon); and she gave them a score sheet that would be used to evaluate the presentation which included eye contact, time limit, and posture. In this case, the student got maximum marks.  He accomplished what was asked.  Unfortunately, the class got nothing from his presentation.  The teacher failed to require that the speech be designed for the audience, a common omission.

All oral communication must be designed for a particular audience.  This is true for one-on-one communication, small group communication, or large group communication.  It amazes me how often speakers miss this point and fail to analyze the audience.  I recall being called to a faculty meeting on Friday afternoon so someone from the district could introduce us to RTI with a PowerPoint presentation full of densely packed text.  Really?  Is that going to work with this audience at this time?   You have been to talks where the speaker failed to understand the audience, too: telling you things you already knew; using insider jargon audience members didn’t know; not noticing the mood of the listeners; and so on.  If adults can be so inept at designing a speech for a specific group, no wonder children fail as well.  Students need specific instruction about how to build a talk for an audience. 

First, whenever an assignment is given that involves talking to an audience (this includes mock interviews, discussions, book chats, digital stories, podcasts—everything!), begin with an explicit caution to students to think about the audience and design the talk for them.

You may have read a book designed for boy readers, but our class has boys and girls.  How can you make the book talk interesting to all of us?

We will have an in-class discussion about whether or not we should ___________.  Come prepared to state your opinion and defend your position on the issue.  Think about what arguments will be persuasive to class members.

You researched your topic and know a lot about it.  We didn’t research it and our class may not know many of the terms you are now familiar with.  How can you explain to our age group the important things we need to know?

Ideally, at some point the audience will change.  Perhaps students will present to another grade level or to parents.  This creates a great opportunity to broaden the discussion and analyze disparate audiences.

            Second, make sure students know they will be judged in part based on how well they communicated with the audience.  The audience must be involved in scoring this part.  Way too often, students speak at the teacher only.  They know he or she is the only one whose opinion counts.  This is misguided.  A speech is for an audience and only by asking the audience will we know if the speech was effective.

            Let’s score Spencer’s speech.  Did you think he did a good job of designing his talk for you?  Did he make everything understandable?  Did he keep you interested?  We use a 1 to 5 scale, remember, with 5 being perfect.  Raise your hand if you give Spencer a five?  A four?  A three?  Hmm, seems like most people gave you a three, which is good but which could be better.  What did you think he could do better next time, class?  (Discuss)

It does not damage students to have their performance scored if the teacher creates the proper atmosphere. (Of course, we don’t all get perfect marks, we are just beginning to master the difficult job of presenting…)  It does damage students to fail to teach them that what the audience thinks matters.

            Third, teach students how to connect with the audience.  A good talk becomes a great talk if specific statements are added that let the audience know the talk was designed just for them.  The speaker must take his topic and connect it to the lives of the listeners.  In the eighth grade class mentioned above, this would be a connector:

            How many of you have cell phones?  Would you be OK with the principal taking your phone and looking at your text messages?  My case, New Jersey v. TLO, is about a principal searching a student’s stuff, too, and like you, she wasn’t happy about it.

Now, some old Supreme Court case is much more interesting to the class.

           
            Students (and adults!) need to do a better job of making sure they design their words for their listeners.  That means that we have to do a better job of letting them know how to do so.

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