October 13, 2016

Techniques for presenting more comfortably

Sanders Whiting is a teaching enhancement specialist in the Teaching and Learning Centre. He works with faculty, staff and graduate students who wish to hone their voice and presentation skills.

Sanders Whiting is an actor, a singer, an educator, and a voice instructor at Capilano University. All of that is relevant because Whiting is also a teaching enhancement specialist for voice and presentation skills in SFU’s Teaching and Learning Centre.

For the past two years he has been working with members of the SFU academic community who wish to increase their comfort level and effectiveness in front of an audience.

“The most common things people want to address are increasing their confidence and feeling less nervous in public speaking situations,” says Whiting.

“Another thing people come in for is voice production—increasing the quality of their vocal tone. People think their voices have a weak quality, and they would like to strengthen that.”

And there’s that perennial problem for newer public speakers: “What to do with your hands. What do I do with these lumps of clay at the ends of my arms?”

The sessions he offers are free and are open to all SFU faculty members, staff and graduate students. Whiting is particularly happy when faculty members approach him, and based on the feedback he receives, those who do have been “quite pleased” with the results.  

A variety of formats

Whiting’s offerings fall into three categories.

He does a Presentation Skills workshop series that covers elements like breathing, posture, vocal pacing and energy. The workshops are introductory, but can be transformative. Marnie Branfireun, a lecturer in the Faculty of Environment, arranged a workshop for her graduate students and described the results as “amazing! I learned quite a bit myself.”

She singled out “the opportunity to practice under pressure and with live feedback, and [Whiting’s] very empathetic approach,” and concluded, “I suspect that yesterday was both stressful for [the students], but also very exciting, motivating, and just a very ‘eureka’ kind of day.”

Whiting describes the workshops as “teasers” for what he considers his core work: individual Private Voice Sessions. Each session is 45 minutes long. Clients usually bring specific presentations to work on, but beyond that the format is highly individual: “We tailor it completely to their needs.”

One common focus is the opening moments of a lecture or presentation, a point at which speakers often feel particularly self-conscious. Whiting has them rehearse those moments and offers specific suggestions: “We practice walking into place. Decide exactly where you’re going to lecture from. Pick a spot, go there, look at the audience, even for a quarter of a second, to ground yourself and establish a connection.” And so on.

He also talks about the pace of speech, noting that naturally fast talkers can be comprehensible if they practice “chunking,” in which the speaker organizes content by inserting well-timed breaks into the flow of words. He cites late-night TV host Stephen Colbert as a master of the technique.

Although Whiting emphasizes technical and physical exercises, the impact on speakers goes beyond technique: “They look and feel [more] confident.”

The final piece of the package is the Presentation Practice forum that Whiting offers. It’s another place for clients to work on presentations, from conference talks to thesis defences, but this time in small groups to “become more comfortable relaxing in front of people.”

Ultimately, Whiting is there to help people find ways to “improve their skills and feel better while presenting.” To view the full list of workshops and sessions he’s offering this fall, visit the TLC’s Voice and Presentation Skills page.