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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.