hree students have fainted in Richard O'Dor's presence. He is handsome, to be sure. But the swooning, in this case, is more likely due to the nature and demands of his class, "Public Speaking"--"a laboratory for communication training," he calls it. With more than forty students, it is the largest of its kind in the country. What is, for most, a dreaded experience akin to sitting in a dentist's chair is O'Dor's idea of a good time, evidenced by the jovial manner with which he runs the class and the homespun tools of his trade. A lollipop clenched between the front teeth is a device for improving one's enunciation. Read aloud, Dr. Seuss is a sure cure for problems with rhythm and volume. "I try to keep it light," says O'Dor. "I joke around. If the atmosphere is supportive that minimizes the anxiety."
Speechmaking, as O'Dor sees it, is a full-body event. Eyes and lips, arms and legs, all must engage as one--synchronization not easily achieved, he says. We all have our own unique "communication distractions": staring, swaying, slouching. Even the professionals stumble from time to time: President George W. Bush has a tendency to grin at inappropriate moments. Former Vice President Al Gore can appear inanimate even when attempting a gesture intended to express his vigor. Unlike Bush and Gore, though, students may meet with O'Dor privately to analyze performance and discuss areas of weakness.
During class, his students, primarily seniors, give their speeches while O'Dor, head craned, eyes squinting, orbits the podium, observing and interjecting ("Was that powerful?"..."Am I supposed to be sad?"..."Let's eliminate the head bobbing"..."You're leaning left"). Most students who take the class are not polished speakers, he says. But then, neither are most students who don't take the class. "There are so many people at this school who never get the benefit of this and that's unfortunate, I think. There aren't a lot of opportunities after college."
For the fortunate few, he stresses a natural approach to things. "Don't act the role of 'the speaker.' There is no model to aspire to. Everyone has their own style, things that work for them. Take Colin Powell. He's a great speaker. But I don't instruct students to speak like him. I want them to discover the power they have when they minimize their unique distractions."
Dr. Seuss children's books for verbal behavior exercises:
Hop on Pop (rhythmic patterns);
Oh Say Can You Say? (emotion/sound patterns);
Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now (volume).
Students give five speeches; write weekly, one-page reflections on videotaped presentations; and write one research paper (ten sources, minimum), analyzing the topic of anxiety as it applies to their communication.
Richard O'Dor has taught public speaking since he came to Duke in 1987. He was a finalist for the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award in 2003. As coach of Duke's debating club for fifteen years, he has developed the team into an internationally competitive program.
His students rank him high in teacher evaluations; on a scale of 5.0, he averaged a 4.6 rating from 2001 to 2002, and, for spring semester 2003, a 5.0. He is at work on a behavior-based speech text in which he argues that public speaking is not, as many have theorized, one-way communication, but a simultaneous interaction between speaker and audience, of which body language is a vital part.