Break a leg: Repurposing acting class methods to improve students’ presentation skills

Two professors providing feedback to a graduate student about her research presentation while seated around an arrangement of tables.
Sonia Rodriguez Jimenez, graduate student in animal science, receives feedback from Leonor Leandro and Mark Gleason, professors of plant pathology, entomology and microbiology, about how to improve her research presentation. Rodriguez Jimenez is one of the students in this semester's PLP 628: Improving Your Professional Speaking Skills class, which teaches graduate students how to better communicate their work to a general audience.

AMES, Iowa – Graduate students are often asked to present their research at conferences or in academic settings. The trick is taking sometimes very technical information unique to their discipline and presenting it in a way that is understandable and relatable to a broader audience.

Mark Gleason and Leonor Leandro, professors of plant pathology, entomology and microbiology at Iowa State University, have been on a mission since 2011 to improve graduate students’ speaking skills. An article highlighting their efforts and the class they created to accomplish this goal was recently published in Trends in Biochemical Sciences.

The course, PLP 628: Improving Your Professional Speaking Skills, combines several elements that help graduate students feel more comfortable with public speaking and explaining their research in a way a general audience can understand.

“Oral presentations are a type of performance – they are very different from writing a research paper about your work,” Gleason said. “Students have to take that imaginative leap of how to make their presentation engaging for their audience.”

Throughout the semester, students give their presentations several times, making modifications based on feedback from peers and course instructors, as would happen in an introductory acting class. Feedback comes in the form of peer evaluations, watching recordings of their presentations and one-on-one coaching sessions with Gleason and Leandro.

Anne Carey, graduate student in horticulture, appreciates the individualized feedback the instructors provide during the one-on-one sessions.

“Going through the presentation in front of them and having them stop me to pinpoint when exactly I was making the mistake they had referred to made it so much easier to see and integrate the feedback I was receiving,” Carey said. “Although nerve-wracking, having that individual attention and opportunity for a conversation about how to overcome some natural (but not beneficial) behaviors was super helpful. I now know what my weakness are and, being aware of them, can focus on overcoming them and notice when they arise.”

Gleason and Leandro both reinforce to students that the presentation is not about the students themselves, it is about the audience. They encourage students to incorporate analogies, pictures or short videos into their talks to help the audience relate to their work.

“They come in with the expectation that people know what they’re talking about,” Leandro said. “We urge them to sell their work and tell the audience why they should care about it.”

While the course is geared toward students in the STEM fields, any Iowa State graduate student can enroll in the class.

Olivia Meyer, graduate student in horticulture, took the class at the encouragement of Gleason, her advisor. As a boxing coach, Meyer often tells her boxers that the nerves they experience before a competitive event never really go away, no matter their level of experience. The same is often true for public speaking.

“This class equips you with tips, tricks and tools to transform that nervous energy into something useful. It teaches the value of preparation, coaches self-awareness and hones the fundamentals of delivery,” Meyer said.

The impacts of the class extend beyond students’ time at Iowa State. Eric Gangloff took the course while pursuing his doctoral degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at Iowa State. Now an assistant professor of biological sciences at Ohio Wesleyan University, Gangloff said he continually draws on lessons learned from the course during talks he gives and when advising students on how to better present their work.

“This course was invaluable in my development as a speaker, helping me to improve in areas I didn't even consider beforehand,” Gangloff said. “As I work with students now on developing their speaking skills, I continually draw back to my fantastic (and challenging!) experience with this course.”

Gleason and Leandro hope the class will become a requirement for all Iowa State graduate students. To their knowledge, not many higher education institutions offer such semester-long public speaking training to students.

“It’s an opportunity for Iowa State as an institution to take the lead in STEM oral presentation training,” Gleason said.

Ekkachai Khwanbua standing and presenting about his work at the front of a classroom of students.
Ekkachai Khwanbua, graduate student in plant pathology, entomology and microbiology, presents his research to fellow classmates. As part of the PLP 628: Improving Your Professional Speaking Skills class, students evaluate other students' research presentations, providing feedback on what could be improved and how well they understood the information being presented.