Assertivity in Public Speaking

What follows is a assertiveness training session taken from the book When I say no, I feel guilty.

Dialogue #22
Ron handles digressive, irrelevant,
pertinent, and critical
comments during the
presentation of a

Ron is a young graduate student in business administration taking a course in economics. He has great difficulty in getting up in front of a group of people and organizing a discussion or giving a report. Ron’s major fear, a common one, is that people in the audience will know more than he about the subject or catch him in an error or say something stupid. Fear of public performance, even a minor one, is for many people quite debilitating and keeps them back in school and on the job, prevents them from expanding their careers, and even limits them socially in volunteer work, clubs, charity organizations, or recreational activities. Just prior to presenting an oral term paper in his economics class, Ron volunteered to have a dry run in his assertive group. To desensitize Ron to his fear of public speaking, the members of the group were coached to interrupt Ron’s talk with comments and questions that ranged from the sarcastic and irrelevant to those that were pertinent or insightful. These kinds of responses were selected from a variety that a speaker could expect from different audiences and Ron was coached in assertively coping with them. Although Ron received nowhere near the number of comments in the actual presentation from his classmates as he had to field in the assertive group, he was given as much coping exposure as possible in the practice session to comments that might unnerve him. The following dialogue is a condensation of a lengthy report of over twenty minutes with a sample of the audience comments and Ron’s responses which allowed him to take charge assertively and lead the discussion, giving him confidence in his ability to field comments during his actual class presentation.
Setting of the dialogue: Ron is in the middle of his presentation and is interrupted by group members asking questions and making comments.
RON: The next major factor in economic growth is public confidence in the economic process. We can see … (interruption)
1ST MEMBER: How about the influence of foreign speculation in European markets?
RON: Although I’m sure that factors outside the continental U.S. do influence our economy, in this report I am limiting myself to a discussion of domestic factors. [FOGGING]
1ST MEMBER: Doesn’t that leave out discussion of some very important things? This means your report is incomplete, with big holes in it.
RON: I’m sure it has large gaps in it that we could cover, but I’m limiting my discussion to domestic factors only. [FOGGING and BROKEN RECORD] Now returning to public confidence as a major factor … (interruption)
2ND MEMBER: What influence, if any, does Securities Exchange Commission policy have on the economy?
RON: That’s a very interesting point. However, I’d like to discuss that later in context with other regulatory factors. I’d appreciate it if you would ask your question again when we come to that area. [SELF-DISCLOSURE] Any other questions before I continue?
3RD MEMBER: Yes. So far you haven’t said anything about the preferential federal tax structure as a potent incentive for economic growth.
RON: That’s true, I haven’t mentioned it at all yet, but I feel that’s a subject worth several hours’ discussion. With the limited time we have, I don’t think I could do a good enough job to make it a worthwhile topic of discussion. [FOGGING, SELF-DISCLOSURE, and NEGATIVE ASSERTION] Back to public confidence … (interruption)
4TH MEMBER: What about the Keynesian doctrine as an influence in the past thirty years?
RON: That’s a subject my thinking isn’t at all clear on yet. Perhaps one of the other speakers might care to comment upon it, or if there is enough time at the end of the papers, you might give us the benefit of your knowledge on the subject. [NEGATIVE ASSERTION and WORKABLE COMPROMISE] Any other questions. No? Well, moving right along … (interruption)
5TH MEMBER: In your opening statement you said your report would cover the period starting with FDR’s Administration in 1936 to the present. He took office in 1934 at the height of the depression. Why start in 1936?
RON: Did I say 1936? That’s an error on my part, of course. The report covers 1934 to the present [NEGATIVE ASSERTION] Back to the point of discussion, public confidence … (interruption)
6TH MEMBER: Are you still talking about public confidence?
RON: At this rate I’ll never get too far, will I? I’d appreciate it if you will limit your questions until after each section of the report. We might progress faster that way. Now back to public confidence. [NEGATIVE ASSERTION, SELF-DISCLOSURE, and WORKABLE COMPROMISE]
At the beginning of this mock presentation of his material to a bunch of hostile listeners, Ron was quite nervous. He had trouble both with his presentation of material and in responding to audience comments. Near the end of the practice session, the group began to find it more difficult to question and criticize Ron’s material and his presentation; particularly when he began to smile each time someone interrupted him. After he finished, this deliberately hostile bunch of critics gave him a round of enthusiastic applause for learning how to cope with them. After the practice, Ron’s report in class was anticlimactic He felt quite comfortable in delivering his paper on important factors in the national economy, as he saw them, and even enjoyed the mild interchange between himself and fellow class members on the subject. Ron specifically commented on his good feelings on learning that he could assertively cope with the two types of manipulative questions which he received from his classmates. These questions are the classical “South of France” and “sandbagging” types. When a listener asks, “But how does that (what you have just said) apply in the South of France,” he is prompting the speaker to comment upon areas beyond his expertise. Novice speakers often feel that they must have the answer to any question. The “South of France” is often needlessly guilt-inducing and troublesome if you are not assertive enough to simply say: “I don’t know.” The “sandbagging” comment or question is put to the speaker by a member of the audience who already knows (or thinks he knows) the answer to it. This is usually a deliberate attempt to either deflate the speaker and/or puff up the questioner’s own ego. “Sandbagging” questions are usually preceded by an exceedingly long-winded monologue by the questioner that is intended to show his qualifications to ask the question. Most of the time, you won’t even know what the question is and will be in trouble if you, the speaker, hesitate to say: “I don’t understand your question. Would you repeat it?” or if you do understand it, to say, as Ron did in his dialogue: “My thinking on that subject isn’t at all clear yet. Perhaps you might want to give us the benefit of your own expertise later if we have the time?” If the “sandbagger” then panics and blurts out the answer to his own question immediately, you might simply respond as I did once, by saying: “Thank you. That seems like a good answer to your question,” and proceed.
Turning back to a different aspect of authority relationships, in the next set of dialogues, you may see how assertive parents and teachers cope with young children and teen-agers, a behavioral area that many of us have found troublesome.