NIU today | Civic Leadership Academy helps NIU Director of Forensics share her passion for public speaking with local government leaders
As a public university, NIU is committed to engaging with the wider community through programs such as the Civic Leadership Academy (CLA) – a series of workshops offered each year by the NIU Center for Government Studies develop the leadership skills and practical knowledge of professionals in government and nonprofit organizations in the region.
For nearly a decade, Judy Santacaterina, NIU’s Director of Bachelor of General Studies and Director of Forensics, has taught public speaking to CLA attendees. This year, she also launched a new course: Learning to Listen in the Age of Distraction.
We caught up with Judy to ask her about her approach to public speaking, find out why public speaking is so scary for many of us, and learn some tips for speaking and listening effectively.
Why was a CLA course on public speaking necessary?
I was amazed at how many people came to the workshop with great fear of public speaking, even though public speaking is one of the essential skills needed by local government professionals.
Good communication skills cut across a myriad of contexts. If you’re a good public speaker, you’ll find that those same skills for organizing your thoughts and choosing your words correctly will also make you a better leader in a small group and help you communicate better with your employees – it crosses a lot of contexts.
What do you like about teaching CLA workshops?
I love this group. Every time I do a workshop, the reciprocity is just wonderful. I am able to say, “That’s a great comment” and use it the next time I teach or use one of the people present as an example.
What is your guiding philosophy when teaching communication?
One thing I’ve noticed is that people often refer to communication as “soft skills”. And I think “soft” creates something easy in your mind, which it isn’t! Instead, I call them “core skills”, and I’m talking about your core metaphor, in terms of exercise, and how all the other skills build on that core skill.
I also think a lot of people have come to believe that there is some sort of recipe – follow these exact steps to be a great public speaker. And I don’t prescribe anything to that. I believe that everyone has something different to bring to the table, and my goal is to help each person find and build on their voice and strengths. What works for one person may not work for another.
Why are so many people afraid of public speaking?
There’s a big line – I think it’s Seinfeld saying, fear number one is public speaking, fear number two is death. So if you’re giving the eulogy, you’re worse off than the guy in the box!
I think – especially now that we have so much publicized communication – when you give a speech, you’re there. It’s a raw experience. Mortimer Adler has a great analogy. He says the writing is very much like the work of a sculptor or a painter. You can go back and edit it and edit it. Oral communication is like a dance. You can’t start it and then say, wait, I have to go back – I forgot something! It’s fleeting, and there’s something exciting and wonderful about it, but also very, very scary.
What relaxation techniques do you teach and why?
I teach relaxation techniques because I had a really bad experience when I was competing for NIU as an undergrad. I was in a speech contest and I froze.
It was in the quarter-finals of a national tournament, and the only person I could blame was myself – it was all in my head. I knew this speech. I knew it. And yet I froze!
After that, I started researching relaxation techniques. I’m a big sports fan and learned a lot about sports psychology and visualization. This is the technique that I share with the students in the workshop – the idea of creative visualization and saying to yourself this mantra: “I have a message. People need to hear this message.
I take students through a visualization exercise, and I share with them very profound experiences that I have had in terms of public speaking: when I spoke at the NIU memorial and when I did my mother’s eulogy. I say how very important it is to be in the right frame of mind in terms of listening to that inner voice and realizing the power of the spoken word.
Will the visualization work every time? No, but try again and find out what works for you. Some people like to play music, and it calms them down or makes them jazzed up. Some see themselves on the podium, others agree. They create the viewing experience based on what works best for them.
I know you also now offer a course on listening. How are we listening poorly and what should we be doing instead?
There’s this idea that listening is a passive thing, that as long as you’re sitting down and not making noise, you’re listening. But in reality, listening is an active process. To listen is to respond, to ask questions.
We have developed so many bad habits as listeners! It’s hard to block out distractions.
Sometimes there are trigger words that when we hear them we automatically turn off the speaker. Or we mentally start arguing with the speaker instead of listening carefully. I tell students that you should spend as much time preparing to listen as you do talking.
Anything else you would like the NIU community to know?
Teaching public speaking is truly one of my passions. I’ve had the honor of coaching award-winning speakers here through the NIU Forensics program, but the other debate coaches and I also love connecting with people here in the community who need help. for toasting, keynote or other speaking audiences. Part of our mission is that we are here to help you. It’s always been a labor of love, and something I’m passionate about.