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Celebrating the Life

Effectively engaging an audience is dependent on the speaker's ability to sound interesting and convey a positive attitude. Developing good speaking skills involves an increased awareness of your voice, language, body language and tone while teaching. The following tips and activities will help you develop that awareness and improve your teaching.

Voice

Your primary tool for instruction is your voice. When speaking to a class, think about projection, pace and modulation.

Projection: Make sure you are speaking loudly enough so that everyone can hear you. At the beginning of the session, ask the audience if they can hear you and adjust your volume accordingly. Be sure you aren't speaking too loudly, though, as it can overwhelm your audience.

Pace: Make sure you are not going so fast that people cannot keep up, or so slow that people get bored and stop paying attention. You can also use strategic pauses, such as pausing just before an important point in order to emphasize it. One common pitfall is long silences while you are opening a browser or database or waiting for a search to run. Use that time to explain the concept behind what you are doing. In addition, keep in mind that the pace of the session depends upon your audience. For example, freshmen are used to fast-paced, quickly changing presentations. ESL students may require that you speak more slowly and take extra time to cover concepts.

Modulation: Whether your natural speaking voice is high or low, loud or soft, varying your inflection and volume will keep your audience's attention.

Avoid up-talk and vocal fry: When you’re nervous or not confident about how to present a concept, your vocal inflection will often turn everything into a question, with intended declarative statements rising at the end (“My name is Jane Doe? And I’m a librarian here at PCL?”). Vocal fry occurs when your voice croaks at the end of a statement, often because you’ve run out of air. Practicing your presentation and recording yourself delivering new content can help you identify where you’re up-talking and isolate content you may need to review more often. Voicetrainer LLC, a voice, speech and communication consulting business, offers this additional advice:

For uptalk, as you near the close of a statement or the paused transition from one statement to another, focus on directing the tone of your voice downward, but not to the point where it leads to vocal fry. If you notice that your voice is turning upward, take a breath and end the sentence with a downward tone. While at first you may think this sounds too dominant or abrasive, it does not. Instead, your message will seem confident and credible. State the last word as a fact, not as a question.

To avoid vocal fry, take a small breath from your lower rib cage before speaking, and pause when needed to allow breath to replenish naturally. If you speak with too many words on one breath, you will eventually run out of air, and your voice will become gravelly if you try to continue speaking.
While breathing, feel the air fill up your lower chest. If you speak from this area of your chest, your words will come out clearly and powerfully. Make sure you maintain the volume of your speech through the last word of an utterance.”

Language

Avoid library-speak! Most students are unfamiliar with library terminology and research processes. Remember that you are more interested in students learning the concepts and skills of library research than library terminology. To that end, try introducing those terms that students will need to locate information in an interesting yet succinct way. Use analogies to describe difficult concepts. For example, when discussing Library Catalog, don't refer to it as an OPAC. It won't mean anything to the students. Instead, you may want to explain that the library catalog is like a map of all items in the library. When you search the catalog, it is like asking for directions to specific resources in the library.

Body Language

You are communicating with your students through your body language as well as your voice. You can use body language to great effect in the classroom. The following techniques illustrate how.

  • Develop eye contact with your audience. If you look at people when you are teaching, you send a message that the content is important and make a connection with the audience that keeps their attention. Make sure that you look around the room and do not just focus on one person or one section of the room. Some instructors break the room up into sections and make a point of regularly looking from section to section in order to connect with the entire class.
  • Use gestures to emphasize points and keep your audience's attention. If you want to emphasize something you are demonstrating, remember to gesture toward the screen students are seeing instead of moving the mouse on the instructor station screen.
  • Stand up. It keeps your audience's attention. If you must sit, alternate between sitting and standing to make transitions between points or sections of the session.
  • Walk around to keep your audience's attention. Try taking a few steps forward when you want to emphasize a part of your content. Move around the room, but choose a landing point and root yourself there until a natural transition point. Avoid pacing.
  • Relax! Be conscious of how you are carrying yourself. Try not to let your shoulders tense up or allow your body to become rigid. This is physically exhausting and will affect how students perceive you.
  • Smile and laugh! It engages your audience and makes you more approachable if students have questions.

Tone and humor

Your tone also affects your teaching success. If you sound bored, for example, students will be bored. When teaching, try to convey an infectious enthusiasm for the topic. Be positive and upbeat and don't focus on negatives or difficulties. You may also want to try incorporating humor into your instruction. A funny library instruction session will go a long way toward improving students' attitudes about the library and librarians. You may want to try weaving a humorous story throughout the presentation, maybe using it as a basis for activities and sample searches.

Exercise

Record your voice. Select a session you feel comfortable teaching, ask for permission from the attendees and record the session. After the session, listen to the recording and answer the following questions:

  • Did you modulate your voice?
  • Did you speak softly or loudly when emphasizing a point? Was it effective to do so?
  • How often did you use acronyms and jargon when speaking? Did you explain what they mean?
  • What was the pace of your presentation? Did you speak too quickly? Were there long silences?
  • After listening to the recording, what do you think are the three best qualities of your speaking voice?
  • What are two things you would want to improve for future classes?