Recently I sat in on a series of presentations given by non-native English speakers in a professional setting. The small audience of about fifteen people consisted of faculty, students, and a few working professionals. The presenters were for the most part very engaging, speaking on a variety of important international issues, with a focus on the experiences of countries outside the USA. The audience skills of the participants, however, can be described at best as very poor, and at worst as downright embarrassing. Here is a short list of the behaviors the group exhibited that I found to be disrespectful of the speakers and their time:
- Openly engaging with their phone or device and not paying attention
- Falling asleep
- Facial expressions exhibiting extreme boredom, often combined with excessive yawning and sighing
- Interrupting the speaker to ask non-clarifying questions when the speaker asked that such questions be held to the Q&A, and refusing to let the speaker return to their prepared remarks until they had an answer.
- Asking questions on points that the speaker had just addressed that clearly indicated the questioner had not been paying any attention.
- Asking questions that were rudely phrased or in some other way directly insulted the speaker. Examples would be asking the speaker in a patronizing tone if they had ever considered x (where x is some very obvious point that any expert on the subject would of course have considered), or indicating that the speaker’s home country could improve on some area if only they emulated the USA.
- Using complex sentence structure and meandering through a question without forethought when addressing a non-native speaker with limited English skills.
- Dominating the Q&A without letting other audience members talk or conversely, dead silence when the Q&A began.
- Interrupting the speaker to add personal thoughts and examples in a way that suggested that they considered themselves an expert on the material and that it was their job to instruct the rest of the group on the topic.
It occurred to me after these sessions that in all of the ongoing discussion of increasing skill-based training in the college classroom, that this crucial skill—how to behave professionally when listening to a presentation—is rarely mentioned, much less taught. And yet, students and working professionals will, on the whole, spend much more of their time listening to presentations than giving them. Oral communication training, therefore, should probably do a better job of taking this into account.
So how might we do this?
First, we have to share the norms of audience membership with our students, who may not have had good models. Simple talking with students about expected behaviors– staying off their phones, paying attention, not monopolizing the Q&A–, helps them learn the norms of professional behavior and can aid them in recognizing where they themselves excel and fall short.
The next step would be through incentivizing norms of good audience citizenship. Part of the course grade can be devoted to ‘professional conduct’, where students earn 100% just for showing up on time, paying attention, obeying classroom norms, etc. For student presentations, part of their grade can be on their participation quality while being in the audience. In that case, they are rewarded for coming prepared, taking notes, and asking relevant, thoughtfully worded questions.
Finally, an active learning exercise would work well for teaching this skill. For example, ask students to produce a summary and good question at the end of a presentation, as doing so will require them to pay close attention. Or make a game show of one of your lectures, where students get to buzz each other if they exhibit ‘bad behaviors’ and award points to each other for ‘good behaviors’. You could pass around index cards with various behaviors on them for students to model, give them five minutes to do so during a short lesson, and then see which behaviors they can identify. Examples could be ‘play on your phone during this lesson’, ‘pretend to fall asleep’ or ‘interrupt the instructor to ask an unrelated question about the syllabus’. This can be done throughout the semester as a way to keep good audience behaviors salient in students’ minds.
The key is simply keeping in mind that our students do not necessarily intrinsically know how to be respectful participants in a presentation. To the extent that we see developing oral communication skills as part of our teaching task (itself a potentially questionable claim), we should consider the importance of training our students to work on this crucial side of the skill as well.