Why Public Speaking Rubric Is Failing Our Students

Public speaking rubric is a document or measurement scale that is used to test and measure a student’s public speaking technique. However, this form of measurement actually hinders people becoming better public speakers.

Today I’m going to talk to you about why Public Speaking Rubric is failing our students, and what we can do to ensure that our students become better public speakers.

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Public Speaking Rubric assumes that public speaking is like mass. It creates a scale where we can measure public speaking technical ability.

We look at things like fluency and clarity, pace and flow, eye contact, posture, enthusiasm, length of speech, memorization etc.

We look at all of these different techniques of public speaking and we’re trying to find out whether the person is a good public speaker or not.

But as you would know from your own life and the talks that stayed with you, great public speaking isn’t necessarily about pace and flow, or about enthusiasm or the smaller techniques, it’s more about everything together and the message the person is trying to get across.

Public speaking is more like riding a bike than it is like math.

With math we can learn technique and we can learn that a certain problem has a certain solution and has a certain way we should get to that solution.

But with public speaking, just like riding a bike, there’s not this one problem with one answer.

Public speaking is more about the message than it is about the technique. If you don’t have anything meaningful to say, what’s the point of speaking anyway?

Rarely does the public speaking rubric measure message, audience engagement or the value the person brought to the audience. It just measures technique and stuff like that.

By treating public speaking like math we’re actually pulling the focus away from what public speaking is all about, which is getting message across and communicating effectively to our audience.


Below I’ve two examples of public speaking. One is an example from a toastmasters competition by very famous public speaking author/blogger (for whom I actually have a lot of respect). This is one of his toastmasters presentations where technique is basically flawless but when it comes to the overall speech and the depth of the speech and the way that it impacted your life it is actually not that significant.

Great technique, but not such a great speech when it comes to how it affects your life.

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But, then I’ve got a speech from a guy named William Kamkwamba who speaks broken english.

His speech is about how he was so poor he had to drop out of school. But he use the local library to learn about physics and the local scrap yard to get materials to build a windmill. This windmill revolutionised his life and his town.

Listening to his story gets you so inspired about what he achieved and what can be achieved in your own life.

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So, two different speeches – one with flawless technique andone with the boy who can barely speak English who doesn’t use flawless technique. You can see a dichotomy there where flawless technique doesn’t necessarily equal a better speech.


Public speaking is all about communication and when students obviously have major communication flaws (eg. you can’t understand what they’re saying or they keep saying ‘um’ and ‘aaah’) then those things can be dealt with over time

But they’re not the biggest issue in the world!

I think that the major issue is that we’re making the focus the technique rather than the communication.

So it’s not that the technique’s not important. It’s that we need to take technique away from the focus.

We shouldn’t bother measuring people on technique and say: “Well, your technique is flawless, therefore you’re a good public speaker.”

We need to look at the message that the students are bringing and teach our students to use critical thinking, to think outside of the box.

Teach them to take a topic and create a speech around that topic that inspires people, that engages people and that makes people think in different ways.

I believe that the field of public speaking exists to move the world forward and to move ides forward.

And if we are just teaching our students technique, but we’re not teaching them how to look at things from different angles, how to critically analyze things, how to present ideas in ways that stimulate their classmates.

While their public speaking technique might be great, their impact as an effective communicator will be poor because they don’t have anything meaningful to say.

So what should we be teaching our students?

We shouldn’t be measuring them on public speaking rubric and scales – we should be teaching them to create better messages to speak about.

What you’ll find is that the technique flows with that, and flows after that.


Just want to close this off to say that I want to draw a comparison between TED talks and Toastmasters.

So TED talks are conferences that are held with thought leaders in their industries where they talk about what they’ve been doing. The Toastmasters organization is a public speaking organization to teach people how to become better public speakers.

The reason that TED talks have more attraction online, more of their videos are watched every single day than the Toastmasters presentations is because TED talks have something to talk about.

These are people who are leaders in their field, who are approaching the world in a different way than anyone else and thus they have a message worth saying.

When you look at Toastmasters, these are people who are technically great public speakers, but whether or not they have something worth talking about, whether they’re thought leaders or not, that’s left to be said.

Even though the people at TED might not be as great speakers they get more engagement because their message is more important.

So, think about that next time you go searching on the internet for Public Speaking Rubric Scales, and think about how you can better train your students to become a public speaker – not by teaching them technique but by teaching them how to deliver better messages.

6 thoughts on “Why Public Speaking Rubric Is Failing Our Students”

  1. Ryan:

    I’m confused. Which students and what rubric are you talking about?

    In the U.S. the latest one by the National Communication Association is the Public Speaking Competence Rubric, which addresses both form and content. I blogged about it in July 2012:
    Click on the rubrics label to see my earlier posts.

    The 2007 second edition of their NCA Comptent Speaker Evaluation Form covered eigtht competencies – four each about form and content. You can download their detailed publication about it here:

    1. Hey Richard,

      Thank you for you comment. I love extending the conversation and debating things like this as I believe that is very important.

      I still stand by what I say. The rubric discussed in your blog post only focuses on message in point #1 and the optional #11. I guess #9 could kind of be seen as a message measurement also.

      The problem I see is that we are trying to teach kids technique of public speaking without teaching them how to have something meaningful to say. I believe in order to be an effective public speaker you need to have lots of practice, but in order to practice you need to have lots of meaningful things to say. I do not believe technique is bad (in fact I believe it is extremely important).

      But I believe when we focus on technique before we focus on having something meaningful and worthwhile to say we stunt our students public speaking potential.

      The 2007 edition rubric is very similar to your blog post so I will comment on some other things:

      “The Competent Speaker Speech Evaluation Form was created to provide a statistically valid and reliable tool for the assessment of public speaking performance”

      This is fine for making competent speakers but often the best speeches can not be measured on their statistically valid assessment. They are effective because of their heart, and their message as well as their technique.

      The Competent Speaker was developed in 1990 by a subcommittee of the NCA Committee on Assessment and Testing”

      With communication changing at a rapid rate (everyone is on their phones now while people are speaking). How does a rubric from 1990 adjust for the changing audience habits and the changes we need to make as communicators to get our message across?

      Maybe in 2014 it will be more important to teach kids how to talk in front of a camera and upload it to YouTube than it will be to teach them to speak in front of their classmates.

      I am not 100% clear in the solution, I am simply trying to open up new ways of thinking so we can teach more people to be effective public speakers.

      I don’t know if that clarifies. Happy to hear more of your thoughts.

  2. Ryan:

    I’m still confused since you didn’t bother to answer either of my questions about which rubric and what students you are talking about. Were you referring to something currently used in high schools or in universities? Was that in the whole world, Australia, just New South Wales, or where?

    The 2007 Competent Speaker Speech Evaluation Form refers to the following eight competencies. Four are about content: (1) Chooses and narrows a topic appropriately for the audience and occasion. (2) Communicates the thesis/specific purpose in a manner appropriate for the audience and occasion. (3) Provides supporting material (including electronic and non-electronic presentational aids) appropriate for the audience and occasion. (4) Uses an organizational pattern appropriate to the topic, audience, occasion, and purpose).

    Another four are about delivery (form). (5) Uses language appropriate to the audience and occasion. (6) Uses vocal variety in rate, pitch, and intensity (volume) to heighten and maintain interest appropriate to the audience and occasion. (7) Uses pronunciation, grammar, and articulation appropriate to the audience and occasion. (8) Uses physical behaviors that support the verbal message.

    They also are briefly discussed in a tri-fold pamphlet from the University of Colorado:

    That pamphlet points out that the eight competencies originally came from Sherry Morreale back in 1990. The 2007 publication I pointed you to was the revised version of a 1993 publication. So, it came out two decades ago, and then was adjusted in response to changes.


    1. I guess at the core of it I am questioning whether marking our students even makes them better public speakers. I was discussing rubric in general, no specific rubric.

      1. So, how do you suggest to grade the students in a high school or undergraduate class? The grading is a requirement at my university.

  3. It’s been so long since this was posted that I’m not sure you’ll get to read it 🙂

    As a Toastmaster who has given a TEDx Talk, among many other types of talks at companies, NGOs, social events and competitions, I’d say there is one key element in which in my opinion you nailed it and one that I’d say requires reframing.

    That what makes TEDx talks so appealing is something that does not produce analytics and, thus, cannot be measured. I’m talking about inspiration, engagement, and insight generation.

    No manual in Toastmasters, no evaluation sheet, no method has the capacity to standardize growth in a field that is so connected to personal stories and the assimilation of learning in our minds.

    I, too, have had this discussion with Toastmasters who are usually older than me.

    But is that enough to say that TEDx is better than Toastmasters? Such a comparison is similar to saying that automobiles are better than wheels. Cars can take you to places, yes. But can you imagine how many mechanical tools that are not automobiles are based on the physical principles of wheels?

    You could say that TEDx talks on youtube are of a better quality than Toastmaster speeches on youtube. And you’d be right 99.9999% of the time. But you’d be right 100% of the time if you stated that Toastmaster speeches on youtube are much more in number than TEDx talks, and that is precisely why they can’t be compared. They have different purposes.

    TEDx focuses on spreading awesome ideas. That is, people who belong to the organization work together to organize an event while ensuring that the talk given has a superior quality.

    Toastmasters aims to help people develop their communication skills. That is, through a global/national/local organization, it supports the development of specific skills that are an objective benchmark of variables that increase the quality of spoken communication.

    Can Toastmasters produce quality speeches at the same rate and level as TEDx? not in a comparable way, no. It is not the organization’s purpose.

    Can looking at TEDx talks directly increase someone’s ability to improve as a public speaker more than Toastmasters? absolutely not. That is not what they aim to do.

    Conclusion: Though I do concede that Toastmasters has slightly failed in the academic process of teaching whatever can be standardized about engagement and awesomeness in speeches, by no means do these variables always play a fundamental role in the crafting of a critical spoken message. Quarterly reports to the board of directors, firing someone or debating are all instances in which one can only improve through the dissection of objective variables, rubrics, that, through practice, makes one more aware, more sensitive and thus slightly better as one continues to practice.

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