Podcast: The Magic Bullet

Updated: Oct 1, 2019

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In this episode, we sit down with Dr. Andrew Billings, the director of the Alabama Program in Sports Communication and Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama. We discuss the need for the integration of Public Speaking into education.


Tyler: Today we're here with Dr. Andrew Billings and we are here to discuss the power of public speaking. How are you doing today?


Dr. Billings: I'm doing all right thanks for coming down to meet with me.


Tyler: My pleasure, it's a wonderful campus to be on—very beautiful day.


Dr. Billings: Yes.


Tyler: I want to start out just by asking to tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you got to here.


Dr. Billings: Yeah, no, I I grew up in in smalltown Indiana—LaGrange, Indiana—and gradually have been working my way south. So, I went to school at Indiana University. Got all three of my degrees there. And I've been a professor for 20 years: 12 years at Clemson University in South Carolina and eight years now here at The University of Alabama.


Tyler: Okay, so you keep getting into a warmer climate not a bad plan!


Dr Billings: Yeah, well yeah, I I figure we might retire in Miami by the time we're done but uh but know this that this has been very good for us. I'm in a I'm still in communication I'm in a media department now journalism and creative media but it still all ties together with that and core interest in how we communicate, and what we communicate, what's the impact of that communication.


Tyler: So, what was the moment, the event, what just general upbringing that led you to be interested in for our concerns public speaking but in general communication?


Dr. Billings: Sure, well you know like I said it was a small town I went to Lakeland High School and back that I had maybe 600 students which you know was combining a number of different towns into one just to get that. And we weren't the greatest at sports in the state or anything, but we were one of the best speech teams in the country or in the in the state, I should say. And so, all of a sudden, I was a freshman I was realizing that I wasn't gonna grow beyond the 6’ – 1” stature and maybe basketball wasn't going to be the answer. I was okay at sports, I was looking for other activities and here was the speech team that had roughly 10% of the school's population on it. There were 60 people on a speech team in a small town in Indiana and they had different events and things and the one that really appealed to me the most was called original oratory. And it's simply, write a five to ten-minute speech on anything you want and and sell it. And that appealed to me. Like, you're telling me I get this platform to talk to people to potentially persuade people to get them to think about something they hadn't thought about before. And the next thing you know that that became, and I was bad my first year, I mean truly bad, but I wanted to get better. I thought it was interesting I could I could identify who was winning and why. And so gradually that led to me doing it more in high school which led to my competing on the speech team at Indiana University. And that became the formative moment for me, I mean it really was, I know Malcolm Gladwell got famous talking about you know how these outliers get ten thousand hours of training in something. The Beatles were playing this many hours a night, I don't claim to remotely be at Beatles level of public speaking. But, I got better at it and I did get roughly 10,000 hours of training in that various capacity to the point that I felt very comfortable and felt it was at least a plus rather than a minus for me. And that really opened up many doors in a variety of ways.


Tyler: So, you really saw the value of that not only for yourself, but for others going into the education of that?


Dr. Billings: Oh my gosh, I mean you know, yeah. I was on the speech team in Indiana for four years and then I coached for four years and so you see the lightbulb moments for people. And I would see people who you know sometimes they just loved speaking and that's what they were born to do. And other times, it's like I want to get over this fear but what we consistently would find was these people were then rising quickly through their jobs they were excelling in ways that I couldn't find any other cohort even an honors college that would excel in that way. I mean you know at Indiana you know future governors were on that team, to Tavis Smiley at BET, you know there were people who got their training. And now we've got people who are professors at prominent universities, we've got people with TED Talks that have millions of views, we have all sorts of people who are really excelling well beyond I think what even that degree would probably have done for them. And the key component was always public speaking right well.


Tyler: Speaking of a TED talk, I saw a TEDx talk you did. In that you talked about how talking about the 28 courses that you take over the course of high school education not one of them tends to be any sort of oral communication—even though that is so important and that is what employers are looking for. Why do you think that is?


Dr. Billings: There's a number of reasons. I think it applies both of the high school and the college level college—you tend to at least get an oral communication competency there—in high school, usually not. Sometimes it's offered as an option but it's not there. So, you try and think of where is higher ed going right now or where is even secondary ed at the local level going right now and so lots of questions are how do we build this to scale? How can we serve more people in a single class right? How can we have massive class attendance or enrollment? Number two, can we put it online? And number three, how do we assess it? Well, each of those there are some problems for public speaking. You know, number one it's very hard to build it to scale if a teacher decides even in high school. They meet for let's say 45 minutes five days a week even if they have you know 25 students in the classroom what they're basically committing to if they have, you know, six-minute speeches is: I'm gonna take an entire week right out of this just to do the speaking part not even the training for the speaking partand so it eats up a lot of time you can't really build it to scale. Online, you know, we've had some progress with at least doing the training part online, but still that core assessment you can't do because you know we would, you know, we will even explore possibilities of well video yourself giving a speech and then send it and we will assess it. Well, there's a couple things there, it's still not generally in front of strangers—it might be in front of friends and there isn't that one take nature of it—that you could do this 25 times and take your favorite take. It's not the way you do a job interview, it's not the way you interact with most people. You get one shot and even if you're inarticulate as I'll be, even in this podcast, at least you try to think there's more positives and negatives and leave an overall favorable impression. And then the assessment is that third part that's difficult because we want to have a national assessment for everything. We want to have a way, whether it's No Child Left Behind or a CT SAT, we want to have some way to do that. And think about the amount of time it would take to watch speeches and to assess them but think of what the baton you know all three of those things are. Not arguments not to do it, they're arguments for why it will be tough to do it, but no one's making that argument you shouldn’t, or it wouldn't be a great idea. The problem is how do you build at the scale how do you assess it right?


Tyler: Something that just came to mind in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Jefferson County Public Schools have started something called their “JCPS backpack initiative.” And with this they talk about core competencies that they want from K through 12. Students to carry with them to the next grade, sort of to validate their progression forward and eventually through graduation. As they do this at the end of each calendar year of school they give a presentation to talk about these pieces. It's almost like a portfolio, but it's a little broader than that it could be any type of project not just writing and they put on a presentation to really justify why they gained the core competencies that they had. Do you think that something like that could be sort of maybe a bridge from where we are now to this being a requirement to graduate? Sort of infusing that into the everyday what we're doing?


Dr. Billings: I think that kind of thing is what you really need. You don't want recitations, even if they get to write their own speeches, many times they're reading it word for word. So, if they're integrating or applying it and saying here's what I learned and trying to build, you know, persuading is a step more than informing in terms of, not just okay, here's the issue but here's what I want you to think do not do whatever it is on that and so if they're making a persuasive case that can be very useful. And I guess on the on the flip side, when teachers say I'm losing this much class time what we tend to find is they can do a lot of their grading while the speech is going on, so it's less take-home work. So, part of that can balance out in some ways, but yeah, I think anything that gets people up in front of an audience and trying to articulate here's why I have value or here's what I have learned is where we have to be because making a case for yourself is something that I think students are increasingly struggling with. You know, they'll have a great website, they'll have an interesting Instagram feed, whatever it is. And they, lots of times, falsely think well it's good someone will just find it right. No, you've got to be able to make the case you got to be able to sell it, you've got to be able to do that one on one type communication even that you get some conversations like this one.


Tyler: It reminds me of a line from your TED talk as well and then it stuck with me, your knowledge could be all dressed up and nowhere to go. If you're not able to communicate that.


Dr. Billings: What we're finding especially now you know we have a lot of grant work your research grants that happen and in colleges and universities. And where oral communication fits in or really communication in general is that final step you can you can say oh my gosh here's what we found about, you know, kids and obesity or whatever the topic is. But you've got to have that ability to say, okay what do we do with that? How do we sell that to parents, to schools, to kids, in a way that they understand? And so once again it becomes that final step right because otherwise—gosh even our teachers right now often have great information, but they don't have any sense of how to organize it how to make it relatable and it becomes drudgery.


Tyler: Well I mean, looking at how important that is to even introduce this type of education earlier than college higher ed? Why do you think some institutions are pulling the public speaking requirement out of their core curriculum?


Dr. Billings: Well, like we said you know it's it's it's a matter of scale you know so there's some classes you can put hundreds of people in there you can do an ABCD multiple-choice exam and you can move students in and that's much more cost efficient. The other thing that I think matters on that I haven't brought up yet at virtually every level is we need more teachers in that area so for instance. When I was at Indiana University I wanted to be, you know, undergrad I said okay want to be a speech and theater teacher. And the argument was okay well you're not gonna be able to teach all classes in that, so you have to have a side hustle right you know so most of the time that was English. So, you do English with a side of speech and theater well. Then when it came down to a methods class they had here's how you teach math and they had here's how you teach English, they did not have here's how to teach public speaking right and ultimately, I worked with the professor Charles Taylor who we collectively put together a class that would then be offered there to train people. But still it's that it's that stepchild situation, so you know, if you have, if you say we are gonna require this at the high school level, you've got to have thousands of teachers who actually know what they're doing and don't just say okay instead of writing this paper you're gonna speak it—which is nice, but you aren't really training them. And it's good to get them up on their feet and speaking right, but ideally to make it a positive experience you talk about everything from how to organize your thoughts to how to persuade to how to use visual aids to how to have vocal articulations. So, it's a positive experience as opposed to a dreadful one which might make them never want to do this again.


Tyler: Which is what comes to mind when everyone thinks public speaking.


Dr. Billings: You know, if you don't give them any training and the teacher doesn't really know how to provide that training it's kind of like, you know, a football team where the coach doesn't know how to draw up plays or tell people how to play positions it's gonna be horrible. You're not gonna like playing football--


Tyler: --or watching it. So, I think more and more people are thinking well I don't need that as much as I used to because I'm gonna be behind the computer all day.


Dr. Billings: I mean what we found I think was about five years ago we saw a study that said 7% of all communication is online and it just stunned people. I'm like well how often do you really place your restaurant order online yeah, we can do that now and we couldn't before but you're still largely ordering in person and you're still you're still trying to resolve a lot of your conflicts hopefully in person. I guess there's there's this myth of digital efficiency that at least I found lots of times you know you can have 18 different text messages between you and a friend to ultimately decide yes I'm going to go out for tacos with you on Tuesday and what had just been easier to have a conversation and that's why most people still do right that's. That's still why we find those things most meaningful. There are very few people who say oh gosh I remember that Friday night that we stayed up Snapchatting each other. It tends to still be that the memories, the thing, the ways that we find meaning are through actual human interaction and that's what we value.


Tyler: That's true and you don't really necessarily think how public speaking can lead to improvement in communication across the board interpersonally and even right here doing a podcast interview.


Dr. Billings: Oh, it's everything it is it is you know if you have an issue with your hotel reservation do you feel comfortable yeah telling the hotel here's my issue. I have had too recently we you know we've been working through some issues in our church and so to be able to stand up and make a case for one side is public speaking at its finest. It's being able to sit at a table and not know you know it's not that how to win friends and influence people but how to at least make my best case so even if you disagree with it you at least understand where I'm coming from right. And that's what we don't have in our politics a lot right now that's the way we discuss a lot of things is very performative and when people say they want to have a conversation about the issue they don't mean they want to have a conversation it means I want you to hear me and that's not what public speaking or all communication should be teaching. There's that feedback in that right back and forth that hopefully we can train people to be more literate on that both in media and us.


Tyler: So, going off of that that whether it is the majority or not communication is changing it's becoming more digital you may instead of being able to come and do an in-person interview like this maybe you do a videoconference. Do you think the rise of these types of technology is changing how especially the younger generations are communicating day in and day out?


Dr. Billings: Oh yeah, yeah, I think they are and especially we talk about the attention span being minimized in a number of ways and I that's certainly true right it makes it much harder than when you need to do something more extended. So, I'll concede for instance and I do with my classes now one activity I have my doctoral students do is they'll do a Skype interview with me and they'll say “well why not just do it in person we're all right here?” I'm like well chances are the company you know is going to start with a Skype now because they don't want to go through the hassle invest the time and the resources and all that until they know you can do that. It's amazing to some of them how long 20 minutes is oh just for a back-and-forth conversation because they're so used to well I I post this on Snap or live it out there and you know no one's gonna watch 20 minutes so I do 15 seconds. So, it's definitely a different mindset there but getting people comfortable with that that not only does it not have to be something you flee from but it's something you could enjoy. That's a whole different battle, you know, there's a lot of people are like I just like this to be tolerable and that's a fine first step but then actually if you can say gosh I would like to have an actual conversation about this. This could be good that's gonna be more productive than trying to resolve something over email or text or any of that.


Tyler: When you get into that frame of mind that's when you start to get that take that feedback and understand that it's a dialogue and you're not just throwing your side of the conversation out there.


Dr. Billings: You know you're not compromise you're not sowing out you're compromising. You're trying to come to some level of agreement and I think there's more desire just because we feel so uncomfortable with interpersonal disagreement in person that we're apt to be a little bit more reasonable right then in our online persona or something. Certainly, I think we see that in our politics you know to you know call one side a label or a name is one thing but to do it to their face right it's something else and I think there's still something human about that that can be a path forward when we feel very divided.


Tyler: Very good way of thinking about it. So, you mentioned being on the competition team that were speaking beside maybe something like that or a formal course in communication, what are ways for the professional out there that wants to improve their communication and speaking ability, what are some things that they can do?


Dr. Billings: Well, I mean there's chances are there's more than just you. So, you can cluster with friends with you know whatever it doesn't say we are going to work on this. There's still the group Toastmasters that get together and give speeches for each other simply to try and get better as a group there. Educationally there's a couple of different strategies that people sometimes diverge on so one is that formal oral communication class we even diverge on that too. Which I understand why but you know there's the formal public speaking stand up and speak as opposed to I want you to be able to articulate yourself be I have to stand to do it. Or it can be corporate communication that is oral in nature or something like that there are different strategies. Beyond that – for instance in higher ed there's different acronyms for things so we have CAC which is Communication Across the Curriculum, there's WAC which is Writing Across the Curriculum, there's WID: Writing in the Discplines, and there's CAD which is Communication Across the Disciplines. All of those can serve a good purpose here you just have to think about what that purpose is. So, the debate many times is well we're not going to require a public speaking class say of an engineer we're going to require one of their engineering class to have oral communication as part of it. I know when I was at Clemson University for instance I think of his architecture that had three courses that each were one third oral communication so it was like you got ten weeks of instruction and then five weeks of how to put that in action. The catch was and why it was useful was they then hired out a communication lecturer who would come in and teach those five-week modules, so you had some of its actual background expertise in communication not just the subject at hand do it. And I think that's really where I come down on it too. You know, my classes have math in them, they have writing in them, whatever. It is I would never make the argument that they should replace a core math requirement or a core English requirement or something like that. No, we're trying to synthesize this in some way, so you want to have a base and I think it's important to take it early a whether it's public speaking or oral communication in some form. And then you want to learn you know step two is applying that base in a variety of contexts I don't think it's even unreasonable you know here for instance we have public speaking and we have advanced public speaking. Now many times people think that means advanced public speaking is for the people who are really good at it. But, really, it's basically public speaking two - it's for people who want more of it and that really helps set you out. I mean it's really about taking the time to do it right and that's probably one of the biggest issues I think we have speaking right now is if you have a speech assigned for class and I have this when I taught public speaking oh my gosh I'd have this a lot they're like I don't understand what went wrong I got a D on this and I practiced it three times. I'm like well it's a six minute speech you know so this would be the equivalent of you saying well I don't know what went wrong on this exam I studied for 18 minutes right and and when you look at it that way you start to think well of course I didn't it didn't come through there! But in people's minds, like well, yeah, I'll run through it once I'll do this you know, I’ll do fine.


Tyler: I like that I've never really thought about it in that context. Well, in being an engineer who actually voluntarily went on to take the advanced course because I was getting a lot out of it I think it's another one of those things it's cliche but the more you put into it the more you're gonna get back out of it.


Dr. Billings: The actual doing it right so what matters I mean there was one category I remember in a high school competition that was radio which was and you I forget I never did it but you know each round was something different. Like once it was a you read an editorial and once I think it was a commercial and it's basically training for radio. And you would be alone in a room and your judge would just wouldn't even know what you look like they'd just hear your voice and you'd be handed that that editorial to read on the spot. And tons of people would do it because it sounded fun, but the same person was winning every week. And then I asked someone you know what was going on there everyone else was too embarrassed I guess to be in a room full of other people and to read theirs out loud. This guy was speaking out loud to a wall and immediately as many times as he could to the point that for him it was like you know from the time he got it preparing he was doing it for the 14th time where someone else was reading it out loud maybe for the second. And there was no comparison.


Tyler: So, it this reminds me all of I wanted to mention it kind of as a preview to our next episode, going back to even the high school education or oral communication in high school we're going to have an episode coming soon with some individuals in Illinois that are working with their state Senate to try to pass a bill that would as far as I understand it and they may be able to give us better detail no doubt then right I can right now but to include oral communication as an option for high school students to graduate and I just wanted to get your thoughts on that. I feel like I know what you're gonna say but I wanted to…


Dr. Billings: I think it's a good first step the catch is when you list it as an option then you're going to get the people who want to opt in and you lose some of the people who think they've got it covered and don't and there's a lot of people who think they've got it covered and don't. I still remember when we were lobbying for all communication to stay in general education at Clemson there was a professor in the hard sciences arguing against it and he stood up and said all I needed to learn about oral communication I learned in the back of the ‘57 Chevy. And he just proved his point for us that he thought he was a great communicator and here he was doing something completely inappropriate for the circumstance showing he didn't have the communication skills he needed you know so no I think it's great if Illinois looking at doing that. You've got to make sure you've got the teachers who are you know have have a curriculum that they're trying to advance with it because it might be that they weren't trained in public speaking in college. But it's a great first step and boy can you imagine if you got to the point where every single student in a given state had to have an oral communication course? I think that becomes the laboratory for the nation if you say why is it that these students from this school or from the state always seem to be doing well here. And you can start to say me maybe it's that I remember I mean this was maybe 15 years ago back when laptops were not standard for everyone and I think was the state of West Virginia that said okay we're gonna put a laptop in the hand of every I think sixth grader or older digital literacy went way up. And all of a sudden then you know that notion of West Virginia not being in touch with innovation or technology started to get thrown out the window. And there are a whole lot more people who are a step ahead in a variety of ways that's what Illinois could do with oral communication that's what I mean. Imagine if there were a university it said we don't care that we can't scale it but we're going to require not one but two oral communication courses of every single student. Or we're going to do a true communication across the curriculum and we're going to make sure that they have oral communication requirements in a variety of contexts. Lots of schools piecemeal that a little bit but to truly have it infused where you just say oh I know what goes on there right you know where you are just, where people know. For instance, I work in sports media now people know hopefully if I Alabama persons in the stack like okay they come in with the quality still set but Syracuse or Northwestern those are schools that are known for oh okay we know they're getting the skills they need we know they can thrive in this environment the same thing could happen for for oral communication.


Tyler: Very interesting to think what the possibilities could be on a broad scale like that.


Dr. Billings: It sounds old-school and yet it's incredibly new school when you really look at it the more things moved to technology the more vital the non-technology parts become because they become harder for people to do. You know there's a whole lot of teenagers right now who go out with friends and don't know how to talk as a group and they sit you know they'll be four 13-year olds sitting at a table eachlooking at their phone rather than talking to each other cuz they aren't quite sure what to do. We got to have that I don't think you know constant screens for all our communication is the future we still have to have that human connection.


Tyler: Well, that may be what you'd like to leave but I was going to ask you as we wrap up here is there anything you'd like to leave with our audience here and it's there's students in the audience, there's other educators in the audience, professionals…


Dr. Billings: Yeah, I think it's it's simply that notion I guess I mentioned this in the in the TEDx talk I do think public speaking is the magic bullet I really do think you know for that parent who is trying to find a way how does my you know how my child stands out you know. How do you how do you in a group where 4.0 GPA s are all over the place how do you really stand out and get that job or that promotion or that scholarship? And the answer is public speaking can you get in a room and articulate yourself what do you value what what matters to you if you can do that I don't care what the field is, I think you've got a really bright future.


Tyler: You can open doors.


Dr. Billings: Absolutely, as for me.


Tyler: Well, I really appreciate your perspective and hearing your story and thank you for taking the time out to speak with us.


Dr. Billings: Happy to do it it's been my pleasure!


Tyler: All right, thanks again!

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