Wednesday, February 16, 2011


It’s the first day of Speeches. Let the excuses begin!!

My students deliver 4 researched and prepared speeches in my Public Speaking classes in addition to 5 limited preparation speeches. We’ve been preparing for this day since the first week of class. Every day we have covered another concept to help make students ready for this speech – organization, supporting material, outlining, introductions, conclusions, research. The course is designed very carefully to build up to this first speech. We cover all the material in order and I require students to hand in work along the way – first a thesis statement, then main point ideas, then a rough outline, then a finished outline.

Students are allowed to choose their speech day. We have 3 days of speeches this round, and students volunteered to go on specific days. They have chosen when they wanted to give their speech. There’s absolutely no reason to not be prepared.

And yet, the excuses come. “I won’t be in class today. I know I’m supposed to speak, but…” A full one-fifth of the students scheduled to speak made an excuse as to why they couldn’t.

I often joke (as do many Public Speaking instructors) that taking a Public Speaking class is hazardous. It results in the death of untold grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as well as numerous family pets. It fosters all manner of illness from the general malaise of ‘I’m just not feeling well at all,’ to the flu, to laryngitis, to fevers and chills of unknown origin. It results in various family members having to go out of town for various emergencies, and they must take flights that require them to be taken to the airport during the scheduled speech time. It even has been known to send friends, sisters, and boyfriends’ sisters into labor requiring the immediate attendance of a speaker at the hospital for the event.

While all these are certainly valid life events, it is fascinating to me how much more likely they are to occur if the student is enrolled in a Public Speaking course.

It’s not like there aren’t consequences for not speaking as assigned. It’s an automatic letter grade deduction and then another letter grade for every missed speaking opportunity. The highest grade most people who give a late speech end up earning is a C. Many end up with a D or an F. And, the reality is, that many people who aren’t ready to speak on their assigned date are never ready, and end up not giving the speech at all – a 0. Failing to give one of the 4 major speeches, generally results in a course grade no higher than a C, often lower. That’s not a pre-determined policy – it’s simply the results I’ve seen over and over through years of teaching this course.

Of course, excuses abound, even outside of the Public Speaking classroom. We see them in our workplace, with colleagues, in our friendships and family relationships. There’s something almost instinctive in the self-protective nature of the excuse. It’s not really my fault – it’s beyond my control. That allows me to convince myself that I wasn’t lazy or unorganized. It’s not that I’m irresponsible or unprofessional. It’s not that I was thoughtless or purposely disrespectful. I have an excuse.

Listening to my students’ excuses makes me painfully conscious of my own. And that awareness, while it doesn’t change or erase the consequences of my students’ choices, does give me a greater understanding of what they’re experiencing, and a greater compassion as well.

(I tried to create my own image, but couldn't figure out the software... so I snagged this image from this site: