Guest Stint: What It Takes to Speak in a Classroom

October 30, 2013

By Dr. Julie K. Henderson, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Jim Streed, APR

Having a guest speaker in a classroom can be a win-win-win situation: This means additional help for the professor, a different perspective for the students and a new experience for the speaker.

It can also be a lose-lose-lose situation if he or she doesn’t plan properly. For example, having a guest speaker hold up the class textbook and say, “You can’t learn anything from this,” is not a good start.

What does a professor want? Someone to add to the class discussion, probably to provide some recent real-world examples and to offer unique information beyond the professor’s expertise.

What does the guest speaker want? The opportunity to add a facet to the students’ view of public relations and to cultivate budding professionals who might one day knock on the door.

Here are 10 guidelines for creating a positive experience from the perspectives of a professor and of a frequent guest speaker.

From a professor’s perspective:

  1. Know that more information is better than less information.

    Provide the speaker with a copy of the syllabus so that he or she can determine how the lecture will fit into the semester. Tell him about other readings that students are doing, what assignments they are working on, what the textbook is, why you chose it, and so on.

    It can also be helpful to ask the speaker for a biography to share with the students ahead of time. This may lead to an instant connection through a shared work/internship experience, a study abroad program or even a common hometown.
  2. Be specific about the time allotment.

    Do you want the guest to speak for two hours? Do you plan to have time for Q-and-A? Would you like him to critique student assignments ahead of time, or during class? When do you need the speaker to arrive? Is there time after class to chat informally with the students?
  3. Explain the classroom’s physical environment.

    Is the class typically a lecture or seminar format? How big is the room? What equipment is available? Is there Internet access? Are there computers for each student?

    It’s also a good idea to provide the speaker with a parking permit and map of the area ahead of time. Most campuses share the same problem: There are limited parking facilities.
  4. Put the class into context regarding the curriculum.

    Is it a required course or an elective? Is it a freshman class or advanced? Does the class cover a general topic, such as principles of public relations, or a more specific topic, such as crisis management?
  5. Describe the students.

    Are they majors, minors or other levels? Are they mainly freshmen or seniors? How many students are in the class?

From a guest speaker’s perspective:

  1. Be prepared.

    Make time to study the materials and information that the professor sends you. This way, you can add to what the students should already know.

    Do you have expertise in an area listed on the syllabus? If so, then use that as a springboard for your presentation. Will you use handouts? Why, when and how? Is there time for this? Remember to bring your business cards with you.
  2. Know the technology.

    We all know that technology can make or break a presentation, especially if you use multiple media and the Internet.
    Technology can enhance or destroy the value of the time that you spend with the students. Make it your friend or find someone to help you who’s already on good terms with it. Be creative: Avoid “Death by PowerPoint.”
  3. Respect the students’ time and knowledge.

    Preparation demonstrates this. In addition, show up early, start on time and speak within the given time frame. Set aside specific times to invite questions, and pose questions to your audience as well.

    Students generally want to learn and will ask questions; but you can engage them through your own questions too. And be gentle in your responses. There’s a risk you can shut down further questions.
  4. Respect the professor’s time and knowledge.

    It’s as if you’ve been invited into someone else’s house, so mind your manners.

    Do you disagree with something you read in the materials? Do you have a perspective that’s different from the professor’s? Then bring it on, but do it respectfully.
  5. Have fun.

    In the end, fun times are memorable times for everyone. Don’t be the “Drone on the Throne” or the “Sage on the Stage.” Lighten up! If you are having a good time, then the students will too, and the lessons will live on in the stories students are telling. Give them good story material.

Collaboration between the professor and the guest speaker, mutual preparation and clear expectations are essential to a successful classroom experience for everyone.

Dr. Julie K. Henderson, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. A former national faculty adviser for PRSSA, she has been a faculty member and PRSSA Chapter adviser for nearly 30 years. Email: Twitter: @dr8tch.

Jim Streed, APR, is a manager of Internal Communications at Integrys Energy Group. He is also the professional adviser to the Dr. Julie Henderson PRSSA Chapter at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and immediate past chair of the PRSA Midwest District. Email: Twitter: @JimStreed.


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