12.2 Speaking in Academic Settings

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify strategies for adapting presentations in the following disciplines: arts and humanities, social sciences, education/training and development, science and math, and technical courses.
  2. Identify strategies for effective speaking at academic conferences.

Oral communication has always been a part of higher education, and communication skills in general became more of a focus for colleges and universities in the late part of the twentieth century, as the first “communication across the curriculum” programs began to develop. These programs focus on the importance of writing and speaking skills for further academic, professional, and civic development. Your school may very well have a communication across the curriculum program that includes requirements for foundational speaking and writing skills that are then built on in later classes. Whether your school has a communication across the curriculum program or not, it is important to know that the skills you develop in this class serve as a scaffold from which you can continue to build and develop speaking skills that are tailored to the needs of your particular field of study. As you participate in oral communication within and about your field of study, you become socialized into the discipline-specific ways of communicating necessary to be successful in that field. This communicative process starts in the classroom (Dannels, 2001).

Speaking to Professors and Classmates

What does a good communicator in a science class look and sound like? What does a good communicator in a history class look and sound like? While there will be some overlap in the answers to those questions, there are also specific differences based on the expectations for oral communication within those fields of study. Knowing that speaking is context specific can help you learn which presentation style will earn you a better grade based on the discipline and the course (Dannels, 2001).


Students are often asked to think of a classroom presentation as a simulation of a speaking situation they may encounter in their desired career.

Although instructors try to bring professional contexts into the classroom, students have difficulty or avoid engaging with a “made-up” customer or company. Making a more conscious effort to view the classroom as a training ground that simulates, but doesn’t replicate, the environment of your chosen career field can make your transition from student to practitioner more successful (Dannels, 2000). While students know they are being graded and their primary audience is their professor, you and your classmates are also audience members in the class who can use the opportunity to practice communicating in ways relevant to your career path in addition to completing the assignment and getting a good grade.

Social Sciences

Social sciences include psychology, sociology, criminology, and political science, among others. Speaking in the social sciences is driven by quantitative or qualitative data reviewed in existing literature or from original research projects that focus on historical or current social issues. Social scientists often rely on quantitative and/or qualitative research and evidence in their presentations. Qualitative research focuses on describing and interpreting social phenomena using data collected through methods such as participant observation and interviewing—in short, watching and/or talking to people. Qualitative researchers value the subjectivity that comes from individual perspectives and seek to capture the thoughts and feelings of research participants and convey them using descriptive writing that allows readers to think, see, and feel along with the participant. Quantitative social scientists use statistics to provide evidence for a conclusion and collect data about social phenomena using methods such as surveys and experiments. Since these methods are more controlled, the information gathered is turned into numerical data that can be statistically analyzed. Rather than valuing subjectivity and trying to see the world through the perspective of their research subjects, as qualitative researchers do, quantitative researchers seek to use data to describe and explain social phenomena in objective and precise ways so their findings can be generalized to larger populations. Knowing what counts as credible data for each type of research is an important part of speaking in the social sciences. Some social scientists use qualitative and quantitative research, but many people have a preferred method, and individual instructors may expect students to use one or the other.

Presentations in the social sciences usually connect to historical or current social issues. Students may be expected to conduct a literature review on a particular societal issue related to race or poverty, for example. When presenting a literature review, students are expected to review a substantial number of primary sources and then synthesize them together to provide insight into an issue. Many students make a mistake of simply summarizing articles in a literature review. Students should put various authors in conversation with one another by comparing and contrasting the various perspectives and identifying themes within the research.

Students in social work and political science courses may be asked to evaluate or propose policies relevant to a societal issue. Reviewing information about persuasive speeches, discussed earlier, that include propositions of policy may be helpful. This type of presentation involves researching current and proposed legislation and may involve comparing and contrasting policies in one area with policies in another. A student in a social work class may be asked to investigate policies in urban areas related to homeless youth. A political science student may be asked to investigate the political arguments used in states that have passed “right to work” legislation. In any case, presentations in the social sciences may be informative or persuasive but should be socially relevant and research based.

Arts and Humanities

Speaking in the arts and humanities usually involves critiquing, reviewing, or comparing and contrasting existing literature, art, philosophies, or historical texts in ways that connect the historical and contemporary. It may also involve creating and explaining original works of art. Students in the arts may give presentations on fine arts like painting and sculpting or performing arts like theater and dance. Students in the humanities may present in courses related to philosophy, English, and history, among other things.


Students in the arts present original works to their professors and classmates.

Research in these fields is based more on existing texts and sources rather than data created through original research as in the sciences and social sciences. In the arts, students may be expected to create an original final product to present, which may entail explaining the inspiration and process involved in creating a sculpture or actually performing an original dance or song. In either case, there is an important visual component that accompanies presentations. In the humanities, visual support is not as central as it is in many other fields (Dannels, 2001). Given that the humanities rely primarily on existing texts for information, students may be asked to synthesize and paraphrase information in a literature review, just as a student in the social sciences would. Frequently, students in the arts and humanities are asked to connect a work of art, a literary work, a philosophy, or a historical event to their own lives and/or to present day society. Students may also be asked to compare and contrast works of art, literature, or philosophies, which requires synthesis and critical thinking skills.

The arts and humanities also engage in criticism more than other fields. Being able to give and receive constructive criticism is very important, especially since many people take their art or their writing personally. Some projects are even juried, meaning that an artist needs to be prepared to engage with several instructors or selected judges and explain their work and process through feedback and constructive criticism.

Education/Training and Development

Speaking in education/training and development involves students delivering a lecture, facilitating a discussion, or running an activity as if they were actually teaching or training. In each of these cases, students will be evaluated on their ability to present content in a progressive way that builds new knowledge from existing knowledge, interact with their audience (students or trainees), and connect their content to the bigger picture or the overarching objectives for the lesson and course. Teachers and trainers also need to be able to translate content into relevant examples and present for long periods of time, adapting as they go to fit the changing class dynamics. All levels of the education and training and development fields include a focus on the importance of communication and public speaking. Listening is also a central part of teaching and training. Aside from being judged on how technical information is broken down as a speaker in a technical class may be, speakers in education and training are evaluated more on their nonverbal communication.

Immediacy behaviors are important parts of teaching and training. Immediacy behaviors are verbal and nonverbal communication patterns that indicate a teacher’s approachability. Effective use of immediacy behaviors helps reduce perceived distance between the teacher and student or trainer and trainee. Some immediacy behaviors include changes in vocal pitch, smiling, leaning in toward a person, nodding, providing other positive nonverbal feedback while listening, and using humor effectively. Teachers who are more skilled at expressing immediacy receive higher evaluations, and their students learn more (Richmond, Lane, & McCroskey, 2006). Immediacy behaviors are important for lecturing, facilitating, and interacting with students or trainees one-on-one.

Tips for Effective Lectures (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011)

  • Put content that you are excited about in lectures.
  • Move around to engage the audience; don’t get stuck behind a lectern or computer.
  • Actually write out examples; don’t expect them to “come to you” as you lecture.
  • Include notes to yourself to stop and ask for questions or pose a direct question to the audience.
  • Start the lecture by connecting to something the audience has already learned, and then say what this lecture will add to their knowledge and how it fits into what will be learned later in the class.
  • Do not lecture for more than twenty minutes without breaking it up with something more interactive.

Tips for Effective Discussion Facilitation (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011)

  • Start the discussion off with an example that connects to something the audience is familiar with.
  • Do not be afraid of silence. Pose the question. Repeat it or rephrase it once if needed and then wait for a response. Too often facilitators pose a question, wait a second, repeat and rephrase the question to the point that everyone is confused, and then end up answering their own question.
  • Listen supportively and do not move from one person to the next without responding to his or her comment verbally and nonverbally. Use this as an opportunity to pivot from a response back to the topic of discussion, to another example, or to another person.
  • Spend time making good discussion questions. Good discussion questions usually contain a sentence or two that sets up the context for the question. The question should be open ended, not “yes or no.” Have follow-up questions prepared to move the discussion along.
  • If students/trainees are not actively participating, you can have them write a brief response first, then share it with a neighbor, then come back to group discussion. This is the “think, pair, share” method.

“Getting Plugged In”

Online Teaching and Learning

Online courses are becoming more common. You may have even taken an online course or may be taking this class online. Although we have an understanding of how the typical classroom functions, since we have been socialized into it, the online classroom presents a whole new set of variables and challenges. Some of our past classroom experiences will be relevant and some will not. Many online instructors and students are expected to “figure it out” as they go, which leads to frustrated teachers and students (Ragan, 2011). We’ll learn some tips for making online teaching and learning more effective for instructors and students next. The amount of research and information available about online teaching and learning has increased dramatically in recent years, so there is much more information that isn’t included here. More resources for online teaching and learning can be found at the following link: http://www.eiu.edu/adulted/online_tips.php.

Tips for Instructors

  • Set a schedule and keep to it. A major difference between a brick-and-mortar classroom and an online classroom is the asynchronous nature. In most cases, the instructor and individual students can do their class work at different times rather than all together at scheduled times. This is a major reason for popularity of online courses, since a busy professional, single parent, or member of the military can get a college education on his or her own time frame. You can preserve this flexibility while still providing structure by grading assignments promptly, setting regular days and times for course updates, and charting a progressive path with start and end dates for lessons/units so that students aren’t completing all the work during the last week of class.
  • Reveal online materials as they are relevant. Don’t have everything for the whole semester visible, as it can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate.
  • Monitor and manage student progress by communicating with students about missed and upcoming assignments. Online students are expected to be more independent, but the instructor should still serve as a guide.
  • Create a “frequently asked questions” document that addresses common areas of concern for students, and allow students to pose new questions so you can add them to the document.
  • Do informal assessments to check in with students to get feedback on the course. Don’t wait for end-of-semester evaluations. Ask them what they like about the course and for suggestions for improvement.
  • Find ways to make the course interactive: create a “questions forum” where students can ask questions like they would by raising their hand in class; use peer learning to have students engage with each other about the content; use images, audio, and video; and use real-time chats or video conferencing.

Tips for Students

  • Schedule a time to do your online class work that works for your schedule and stick to it. Make sure that the time spent engaged directly with the course at least equals the amount a regular class would meet, typically about three hours a week for a sixteen-week semester. This doesn’t include homework and study time, which will also need to be scheduled in.
  • Since technology is the primary channel for your learning, plan ahead for how you will deal with technological failures. Identify an additional place where you can access the Internet if necessary. Keep all your course documents backed up on a thumb drive so you can do course work “on the go” on computers other than your own.
  • Ask questions when you have them so you don’t get lost and behind.
  • Practice good “netiquette” when communicating with your instructor and classmates.
  1. What are some positives and negatives of online learning—from a teacher’s perspective and from a student’s perspective?
  2. What courses do you think would translate well to an online environment? What courses would be difficult to teach online?

Science and Math

Speaking in science and math usually focuses on using established methods and logic to find and report objective results. Science includes subjects such as biology, physics, and chemistry, and math includes subjects such as statistics, calculus, and math theory. You may not think that communication and public speaking are as central to these courses as they are in the humanities and social sciences—and you are right, at least in terms of public perception. The straightforwardness and objectivity of these fields make some people believe that skilled communication is unnecessary, since the process and results speak for themselves. This is not the case, however, as scientists are increasingly being expected to interact with various stakeholders, including funding sources, oversight agencies, and the public.


Scientists present results of original research.

The ability to edit and discern what information is relevant for a presentation is very important in these fields. Scientists and mathematicians are often considered competent communicators when they are concise but cover the material in enough detail to be understood (Dannels, 2001). Poster presentations are common methods of public communication in science and math and are an excellent example of when editing skills are valuable. Posters should be professional looking and visually appealing and concisely present how the information being presented conforms to expected scientific or logical methods. It is difficult, for example, to decide what details from each step of the scientific method should be included on the poster. The same difficulties emerge in oral scientific research reports, which also require a speaker to distill complex information into a limited time frame. Research shows that common critiques by biology instructors of student presentations include going over the time limit and rambling (Bayer, Curto, & Kriley, 2005). Some presentations may focus more on results while others focus more on a method or procedure, so it’s important to know what the expectations for the presentation are. Scientists also engage in persuasive speaking. Scientists’ work is funded through a variety of sources, so knowing how to propose a research project using primary-source scientific data in a persuasive way is important.

Technical Courses

Speaking in technical courses focuses on learning through testing, replication, and design and then translating the technical information involved in those processes into lay terms. Technical courses appear in most disciplines but are more common in fields like computer science, engineering, and fire sciences. Technical vocational courses like welding, electronics, and woodworking would also fall into this category. Some nursing courses and many courses for medical technicians are considered technical courses. There is a perception of technical courses as training grounds where you give people a manual, they memorize it, regurgitate it, and then try to put the skills into practice. If that were the case, then a range of communication skills wouldn’t be as necessary. However, the goal of such courses has changed in recent years to focus more on educating professionals rather than training technicians (Dannels, 2000).

Technical courses may include research, but testing, replication, and design are usually more important. A main focus in these courses is to translate technical information into lay terms (Dannels, 2001). A key communication path in technical fields is between professional and customer/client, but you can’t just think of the client as the only person for whom the information must be translated. Technical professionals also have to communicate with a range of people along the way, including managers, colleagues, funding sources, machinists, and so on. Team projects are common in technical courses, especially in courses related to design, so being able to work effectively in groups and present information as a group is important. Much of the presentation in technical courses will be data driven, which is informative. While data may be compelling and the merits of a design self-evident for internal audiences, external audiences will require more information, and selling ideas requires persuasive speaking skills. To help prepare students in technical courses to adapt to these various audiences, instructors often use assignments that ask students to view their classmates and instructor as customers, colleagues, or funding sources that they might encounter once in their career. As was noted earlier, students may not take these simulations seriously, which is a missed opportunity for applied, practical learning.

Speaking at Academic Conferences

Undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and administrators have opportunities to present at academic conferences, which are local, regional, national, or international events at which students, teachers, professionals, and practitioners gather to discuss and share knowledge in a particular field of study. Presenting at or even attending a conference can be intimidating. The National Communication Association provides useful resources on the “how to” of academic conferencing including frequently asked questions and professional standards and guidelines that will be helpful when preparing for any conference: http://natcom.org/conventionresources.


Students and faculty from all fields of study have opportunities to present at academic conferences.

When planning a presentation at an academic conference, you should spend time creating a “sexy” and descriptive title. You want something “sexy,” meaning that it gets people’s attention and connects to a current and relevant topic, and descriptive, so that people can get a sense for what the presentation will include. Most conferences have numerous concurrent sessions running, so in a way, you are competing with people in other rooms who are speaking at the same time slot. Getting people in the room is important for networking to take place. The blog entry at the following link contains useful information about “How to Write Killer Conference Session Titles That Attract Attendees”: http://jeffhurtblog.com/2010/03/17/how-to-write-killer-conference-session -titles-that-attract-attendees.

A frequent complaint about conference presentations stems from speakers who try to cram too much information into their ten-minute time slot. Presenters at academic conferences are usually presenting recently completed original research or research that is in progress. The papers that are submitted for review for the conference are usually about twenty-five to thirty pages long. It would take about an hour to present the whole paper, but since most conferences occur as part of a panel, with four to five speakers and a seventy-five-minute time slot, each speaker usually gets between ten and fifteen minutes to present. Therefore conference presenters must use their editing skills to cut their papers down to fit their time limit. As we’ve already learned in Chapter 9 “Preparing a Speech”, writing something that will be read and writing something that will be listened to are two different styles of writing and require different skill sets. So hacking your twenty-five-page paper down to five pages isn’t enough, as you also need to translate that writing into an oral style. Even at communication conferences, where presenters definitely “know better,” I’ve seen people try to speed read their way through a ten- to twelve-page paper because they could only bring themselves to cut it down by half. As a writer, I know it’s difficult to cut your own work down, because we often think that everything is important, but it’s really not, and even if it was, there’s no time to go over it all. So, since almost all presenters at academic conferences are faced with the same problem of too much information and too little time, it’s important to adapt the paper to a completely different structure than the original form in order to effectively achieve your speaking goals. Additionally, it’s very difficult to anticipate how many people will attend your conference session—it may be forty, or two. I usually prepare a typically formal conference presentation for an audience of ten to thirty people, but I am also prepared to do something more informal. Especially in situations where there are more panelists than audience members, I’ve found it useful to just make a circle with chairs and have a more informal and interactive discussion.

When preparing the presentation, follow these steps: determine the take-home message, determine the main question, add supporting material, and compose the introduction and conclusion (Morgan & Whitener, 2006). The “take-home message” is the one concept or finding that captures the combined importance of all the data and findings. This is what the speaker wants the audience to have memorized by the end of the speech. It provides a theme or thread for the whole presentation and can therefore be used to help determine what needs to stay in the presentation and what should be left out. This functions like the thesis statement of a typical informative or persuasive speech. The next step in preparing the presentation is identifying the main question. The main question will be answered in the talk through the presentation of data and findings. The take-home message should be related to the main question, perhaps even answer it, as this provides a logical flow for the presentation. Explicitly stating the take-home message and main question in the speech helps the audience process the information and helps a speaker keep only the information relevant to them, which helps prevent information overload. The following link contains some information from the National Communication Association about “How to Make the Most of Your Presentation”: http://natcom.org/Tertiary.aspx?id=1763.

Key Takeaways

  • The need for public speaking skills extends beyond this classroom to other parts of academia but will vary based on your discipline. Knowing how to speak in discipline-specific ways can help you be a more successful student.
  • Student speakers in the social sciences present reviews of existing research or the results of original quantitative or qualitative research related to current social issues.
  • Student speakers in the arts and humanities critique, review, and compare and contrast existing art, literature, and historical texts. Students are also asked to paraphrase and synthesize existing texts and connect past art or literature to contemporary society.
  • Student speakers in education/training and development lecture, facilitate discussion, and run activities as if they were actually teaching or training. Students need to be able to break down complex concepts and progressively build on them while sharing examples and connecting to the bigger picture of the course. Students will also be evaluated on nonverbal immediacy behaviors.
  • Student speakers in science and math courses deliver presentation content based on the scientific method and systems of logic. Students may focus on sharing the results of a research project or problem or focus on a specific method or procedure related to science or math.
  • Student speakers in technical courses present “how-to” information regarding mechanical or information processes. They also translate technical information for lay audiences. Presentation content is often data driven, but products and designs must still be sold to various audiences, so persuasive skills are also important.
  • Presentations at academic conferences must be severely edited to fit time frames of approximately ten minutes. Many speakers try to cram too much information into their time frame. Narrow your presentation down to an introduction, an interrogation of a main question, and a concluding take-home message.


  1. Getting integrated: Does your major or career interest fall into the social sciences, arts and humanities, education/training and development, science and math, or technical courses? Which strategies for speaking in that area have you already witnessed among your professors or classmates? Which strategies do you think will be most helpful for you to learn/improve on? Which are you already doing well on?
  2. Identify an academic conference related to your desired career field and visit the conference association’s website. When is the conference? How do you submit to attend? Do they have any advice listed for presenting at their conference? If so, compare and contrast the advice they offer with the advice in this chapter.


Bayer, T., Karen Curto, and Charity Kriley, “Acquiring Expertise in Discipline-Specific Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Exercise in Learning to Speak Biology,” Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning, and Academic Writing 2 (2005), accessed March 15, 2012, http://wac.colostate.edu/atd/articles/bayer_curto_kriley2005.cfm.

Dannels, D. P., “Learning to Be Professional: Technical Classroom Discourse, Practice, and Professional Identity Construction,” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 14, no. 5 (2000): 28.

Dannels, D. P., “Time to Speak Up: A Theoretical Framework of Situated Pedagogy and Practice for Communication across the Curriculum,” Communication Education 50, no. 2 (2001): 151.

Morgan, S. and Barrett Whitener, Speaking about Science: A Manual for Creating Clear Presentations (New York, NY: Cambridge, 2006), 9–16, 35–47.

Ragan, L. C., 10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching: Best Practices in Distance Education (Madison, WI: Magna Publications, 2011), 6, accessed March 17, 2012, http://www.facultyfocus.com/free-reports/principles-of-effective-online-teaching-best-practices-in-distance-education.

Richmond, V. P., Derek R. Lane, and James C. McCroskey, “Teacher Immediacy and the Teacher-Student Relationship,” in Handbook of Instructional Communication: Rhetorical and Relational Perspectives, eds. Timothy P. Mottet, Virginia P. Richmond, and James C. McCroskey (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2006), 170.

Svinicki, M. and Wilbert J. McKeachie, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 13th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011): 55–71.


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