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Back to Basics: Public Speaking An Interview with UW Professor Matt McGarrity

From Socrates to Martin Luther King Jr., public speaking has been an integral aspect of our lives since the beginning of civilization. Whether you’re trying to motivate change or give a presentation, public speaking will continue to become ever so prevalent in our lives. Long-time beloved Communications professor Matt McGarrity has been a critical player in the public speaking field for quite some time. With over two decades of experience, McGarrity has won countless awards, including but not limited to the National Speakers’ Association’s Outstanding Professor Award, Toastmasters Communications & Leadership Award, and UW’s Distinguished Teaching Award. As a principal lecturer, McGarrity shared a few words on his background in public speaking and the importance of this field.

Q: What prompted you to learn and pursue public speaking?


I’ve been learning about public speaking since I was in my early teens. Middle school was my first introduction to competitive speech and debate, which I continued to enjoy through high school. I was also always part of some form of performance, whether that be comedy shows in high school or performing at comedy clubs in college. I did not, however, take a public speaking course in college. Graduate school, where I studied rhetoric, was the moment I was introduced to professional public speaking. I began to teach classical rhetoric and wrote my dissertation on classical and rhetorical approaches to public speaking, helping me earn my PhD at Indiana University. There, I started to coach collegiate speech teams at the University and it was truly a transformative experience; I was working with excellent speakers week by week and attending a diverse range of events. Those in this career path -- teaching public speaking -- usually quickly move out of it, but I decided to continue this passion of mine. UW was looking for just that in a new head of the Communications Department.


Q: Has anything about public speaking surprised you while teaching it?


My first response would be "a lot of things”, but you probably want more specifics. One of the most surprising things is when people come to a workshop or class on public speaking with only delivery but no content. It is incredible to hear the number of people who believe public speaking is mainly gestures and "um." At the beginning of a workshop or course, I always start with a lesson on speech, not just about the delivery. I will argue that delivery is essential. However, approaching a speech from rhetoric is founded on the perspective of differences in mediums such as writing and speaking. Many ancient reteristions' main goals were to pass on their speech and public speaking style, but I can't do that nowadays since all my students will enter different work contexts. Instead, I teach that when writing a speech for an audience, it is important to make it easy to follow, so that people won't need notes or paper to understand.


Q: What is a common obstacle in public speaking you see? How does one overcome it?


There are plenty of common obstacles to public speaking, but the most common I've seen have been people not practicing their performance; they don't log in practice time. I don't blame them - most people hate the act of practicing speech. Since speech is a performative act, it's essential to practice.


Let's say you have a piano recital. You wouldn't simply look at the sheet once you're at the recital. You would've taken the time to rehearse it. The same goes for public speaking. I practice the polished draft at least ten times if I'm doing a high-profile talk. I might not even look at it if it's a low-profile talk since I'm already well-versed on the topic.


Q: How should one prepare to speak in front of a large audience or important clients?


An essential aspect of public speaking is understanding one’s audience, comprehending how it may be nerve-wracking. If you’re preparing to speak in the business realm, one should think of the formality aspects. For a larger audience, you naturally end up practicing more. The best speakers have the same types of interactions you’d have with a small audience, even if they are speaking to a large audience. The odds are for a large audience, you are mic'd up and standing behind a podium; it takes practice to feel more conversational. The goal for a large audience or business clients is to aim for a conversation-type delivery. Some apps can stimulate a large audience's feeling while practicing exposure therapy could also help with this. Exposure therapy is better when you picture yourself in front of a large audience. Another way you can prepare for speaking with essential clients is by checking out the space you will eventually be speaking in. If you can practice in that room or space, do so! It will only be beneficial.


Q: How do you keep an audience attentive?


I'd like to think of keeping an audience attentive in two parts: a design side and a performance side. On the design side, it's important to be relevant. To make sure the audience will get something meaningful out of the presentation. You may ask yourself, "what are my goals for this audience on this specific topic for the time I have?". An example of a design side aspect could be a safety information presentation for one's work. As those attending are legally obligated to go, having an oral form of checking off terms of use could be a way for the audience to interact.


The performance side of presenting and public speaking is being engaging. This, obviously, looks different for different people. Doing check-ins like small breaks or big breaks can help keep an audience refreshed and willing to listen. Small breaks look like taking sips of water or coffee or asking people in the audience questions. Big breaks look like pausing for questions while presenting; this offers the audience a chance to reset. Ideally, a small break should happen every 8 minutes, while a big break should be every 15 minutes. However, once you hit 100 minutes of speaking, getting the audience's attention is really tough.


Q: Who is your favorite speaker? What about that speaker is influential or admirable?


I have a bunch of favorite speakers! My favorite type of speaker is one I can imitate. In classical rhetoric, a prominent practice is this imitation: how I can use what they do to improve my performance. I thoroughly enjoy listening to speakers from academia, such as Neil De Grasse Tyson. He can translate scientific content into a digestible manner. A lot of economists I like are also good at translating. This generation’s Carl Saigon is the best when he is extemporizing - improvising. I also enjoy listening to Martin Luther King Jr. and Winston Churchill. Their eloquence is astonishing.


Learn more about Professor Matt McGarrity and the courses he teaches!


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