Teaching Tips

Practice what you preach

Last week I presented in Principia College’s Dilemmas and Decisions program. It involved a speech. The thing is, while I give others feedback on speeches, this format for expressing ideas is not my forte. I’m a writer. I’m not a natural presenter. Sure, I’m a professor, but somehow that’s different to me. Since I really wanted to participate and share on my assigned topic, reason, when asked a few semesters ago, I agreed to present.

Two things were key to my success and confidence this time around, and I want to share both here as pointers in case they help you.

#1 Make it your own

For three semesters I worked with a script that had been written by someone else. Sure, I added some ideas, including a story last fall, but the script and ideas were never really mine. This got in the way of my confidence and, I think, the success of the presentation. I was never comfortable. This semester I realized I could change that.

In talking through with my husband what the students, mostly college juniors, would care to know about reason and reasoning, I came up with five stories of decisions I’d made between the ages of 17 and 25 and how I had reasoned through them. I started to get excited about giving the talk (and remember, I really don’t like giving presentations to big groups). Why was I excited? I had made it my own, just as I advise my students to do. (You see, they almost always claim that they can’t write about things they’re not passionate about. For me, the passion came in my eagerness to share these stories.)

#2 Do a reverse outline “Put it in reverse” and “Reverse outlines to get you to the finish line”

So I wrote my stories. I crafted an introduction that directly addressed reason as a concept. My conclusion even expressed directly how my last story related to the framework in which reason had been presented to the students: You know, “Here’s how my last story proves my point….” That kind of thing.

But I still wasn’t sure the stories were holding together. I wanted each story to demonstrate a specific point. A-ha! I needed to do a reverse outline, to make sure the speech was doing what I wanted it to. So I took a piece of paper and began. I wrote down the key ideas in the introduction. Then I numbered each story: #1 college choice, #2 grad school choice, #3 should I get engaged?, #4 should I get married?, and #5 should I move to another state? Then I mapped each one to plot which personal values each story represented.

It was only AFTER I’d done this mapping that I saw that mostly I was doing what I had intended. Everything pointed at least somewhat to the fact that reasoning based on our personal values (as opposed to outside influences) leads to “freedom,” and that was my point. But the reverse outline showed me a few gaps, a few connections on the map that weren’t quite being made. And it annoyed me that I hadn’t thought to do a reverse outline earlier. Darn it. I teach this stuff! So, I’m here to remind you to practice what you preach.

The next time I’ll do the reverse outline when I have more than an hour to spare before the talk. A bonus for this time though: the reverse outline helped free me from my script (I didn’t have to read the whole thing), and it helped me know that the points were there. Next time, they’ll be crafted to be crystal clear for my audience. I think they’ll like that.


Ellen Sprague is a writing specialist and assistant professor in the Center for Teaching and Learning. Two (of many) favorite teaching gigs are ENGL 239: Intro to Creative Nonfiction and WLIT 131: Stories around the Globe, which will be taught on the 2019 Slovenia/Croatia/Bosnia Abroad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *