“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right?
This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
― Jerry Seinfeld

In 2005, Sarah Clements graduated from UA Little Rock with a masters degree in interpersonal & organizational communication (now called applied communications) and started teaching within the College of Business. Her course, business communications, helps students with what many cite as a major fear: public speaking. 

What do you teach at UA Little Rock?
S: The course I teach right now is business communication. We cover business writing and business speaking – so it’s two of those things that are combined into a 16-week course …. We do correspondences, so we talk about all the different methods of writing. [The students] do short reports. They do presentations. They do an informal speech. They work on resumes [and] cover letters, and they have a mock interview at the end of the course.

How long have you been teaching online?
S: When I started I taught on campus. There might have been one or two courses offered online. Within a year or two of teaching, I was teaching both online and on campus. It was kind of 50/50, and it has always been 50/50 since then.

How does the online class differ from a physical classroom?
S: Online we use Collaborate (video-conferencing software through Blackboard), so students meet virtually to do their presentation that way. In class they do partner speeches. Online they do partner speeches … They still have to meet and figure out the best way to communicate for each pair, and they can either pick their own partner or if they don’t pick one, then I will assign them. But I will get them at least the chance to go through introductions and kind of see who is similar to them, so their schedules can align. They can meet face to face. I’ve had some say ‘Hey! You’re in my same town ….’
They can [still] do everything virtually online through Collaborate, because they can both go into a session together, record their presentations, and do it that way. They do a lot of Collaborate options, so they get used to being in front of a camera, because I think that’s probably sometimes more difficult than being in class.

Who would benefit from taking this class?
S: It’s professional communication, so anyone would benefit from it. I start with the formal tone, because I assume that students who understand the formal tone when they write a message can adapt it all the way down to being informal … We’re pretty good at being informal, but I want students to understand the formalness when you send an email to someone you don’t know.
How do you start it? You don’t just start it with ‘Hi, so and so’. You have that formal ‘Dear so and so’ with a colon, and start it out formal. Always adapt to the audience. How do they respond to you? And then adjust [from there].
It’s very interesting. The first assignment they have is to write a professional email to me. So it’s kind of funny to see who takes that lesson and continues to apply it and who takes that and never applies it. Start it with addressing the person by name at least and use proper capitalization and punctuation. It’s not a text message.

Why does how and what we write matter?
S: People read your post or your messages, and there’s a perception created by the words you’ve used or the words you didn’t use, and the lack punctuation, or the punctuation that is there … We’re creating a perception of ourselves, and there is a message communicated just by the way you’ve written something.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see students face?
S: They definitely don’t like speaking. And that’s not across the board, but that’s one of the things that most students do not look forward to. And their speeches are recorded for them to self evaluate. They are loaded in their Blackboard shell, and they can go in and self-evaluate, and kind of process what they need to work on, and … find the things they did really well and highlight those, and then also identify one or two things to continue to work on. But, speaking is not something that people enjoy a lot.
Actually, I have them on the first day get up and introduce themselves, because it gets it over with. You’ve done it now. You’ve spoken to your classmates. I continually try to make sure they know each other, because sometimes people are more comfortable speaking to people they know versus people they don’t know. Yeah, I would say speaking is one of the biggest challenges for them. Writing is a struggle for some of them, too.
What’s a “do not” for email communication?

S: Joking.
Joking doesn’t always come off in text messages or emails in the way you think they might, and so just being very careful with that. If your audience doesn’t know you and you’re sarcastic, but you’re joking about it, it may not translate, which can create more of a problem with communication. The miscommunication can happen, and there are troubles that can be caused by something that was not intended, so just be very careful with that.

And a “do”?
S: Positive communication.
Even if you’re trying to deliver something negative, how can you say it in a positive way? So trying to really remove “no” and “not” from your language and you know, instead of saying “you can’t do this,” instead tell them what they can do.
The one I always talk about in class is “Do not walk on the grass.” Well, if you don’t want me to walk on the grass, what do you want me to do? Walk on the sidewalk, right? So, “Please use sidewalk.” So it’s kind of shifting that negative thing and making people see the positive side of it.

Advice for students trying to communicate effectively?
S: Proofread. Really proofreading and making sure you’re sending the message you want to send and that.
Anytime you’re asked to speak, do it.
Even though you don’t want to do it, it’s going to make you better. So I try to even do that for myself. I teach speech, but it’s not something I want to do, right? And so anytime I’m asked to do a speech or presentation, I say “yes,” because I tell my students to do it [and] those things are what’s sharpening us and making us better at what it is that we want to do.
What’s our end goal? Well our end goal is to be the best at whatever it is we’ve set out to do, so even though my first reaction is “No, I don’t want to do that. No, you can find somebody else” … but because I tell my students, “Say yes, because it is gonna make you better,” I try to do the same thing.
20-30 minutes. That’s it. This does not define me. This will just refine me. But at the end of the day when I walk away from this, I will have learned from it … and for the most part, I’m sharing information with people, so they are interested in what I’m trying to share, so letting that be my focus instead of all my anxiety and nervousness.

For more info on Sarah’s business communication course, check out the course listing here.