A tip for a good speech: Practice with a pooch

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

As much as I enjoy presenting or speaking in front of groups of people, it's also true that a moment before I begin, I always experience a moment of sheer panic.

Recently, in preparation for a LeadingAge Illinois presentation, I took Angela Duckworth's advice from her book “Grit” and rehearsed multiple times, then rehearsed some more. But if I had known about an American University program, I might have also invited my neighbor's dog over.

The university has started an “audience dogs,” program. In the words of the Washington Post, it's a “a volunteer corps whose main duties are to be attentive and nonjudgmental sounding boards for university students nervous about presentations they must eventually give to humans.” (If you click on the article, there's video. It is adorable, obviously.)

I know that some of you are rolling your eyes. But hear me out on how you should adapt this for your facilities.

We have all seen poor presentations and ill-prepared speakers. Normally this isn't at a level of, “Gosh, I wish there was a fire so we could all flee” level of bad, but frustrating nonetheless for several reasons. One, often the material is excellent, but the presenter is speaking too fast or too slow, or in a monotone. Sometimes the person speaking is naturally shy and wants to do her presentation, even to a small group of colleagues, in the spirit of, “Let's get this over with.” Or a presenter can be confident, walk up to the stage and have stage fright. She can become rattled by loose notes, a faulty teleprompter or a heckler. (OK, I haven't seen a heckler at a long-term care group meeting yet, but I tell you, it's coming.)

Of course, sometimes the presenter has no idea what he or she is talking about, dazzles the audience with charm and jokes and then, an hour later, you say, “Wait, what was that?”

One bad presentation doesn't mean the speaker is hopeless. But it does mean that person needs practice.

That's where the dogs come in. They offer a non-judgmental ear (in Daisy Mae's case, pictured left, a long ear. She enjoys listening to your presentation, and Taylor Swift). In many ways, the American University program is similar to “Paws to Read” programs where children read out loud to shelter cats or dogs. There's evidence that by reading out loud to a non-judging entity (OK, the verdict is still out on the attitude of the cats), children build up confidence, improve their reading skills and increase their ability to focus.

Are dogs in both programs cute? Sure. But as the American University director told the Post, most of the students who practice are business students who understand cost/benefit analysis. Similarly, the executives or clinical staff who need help presenting should look at the bottom line: More practice will lead to a better presentation. Better presentations will allow them to reach their goal, whatever that may be.

So whether it's a well-behaved therapy dog, resident canine or your own pooch who can sit still for a long time, consider this as an option for those giving large presentations. Progress requires practice.

Follow Elizabeth, who often posts photos of dogs and cats, @TigerELN.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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