The (Skilled) Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Our Associate Provost is organizing a workshop to talk about how (or perhaps whether) we teach presentation and speaking skills in our courses.

I’m planning to attend: I think it’s a really important issue. I worry a lot about many of our students in this respect. While they’re here their writing may improve, their skills in using various academic disciplines may deepen, their knowledge of a particular subject or field may grow very impressively. But many students who grow in those ways do not necessarily become better at speaking or at presenting themselves effectively, not even in the controlled environment of classroom discussion. To be honest, I think some of our students become worse at self-presentation and speaking skills in their time here. Some adapt too strongly to the narrow particularity of academic conversation. Other students get too used to political or social engagement with a community that politely indulges most of their demands or arguments or has a fairly strong consensus culture, never really experiencing serious disagreement or plurality of opinion. I’ve occasionally suggested, semi-seriously, that I feel like we train some students as the speaking and presentation equivalents of baby seals on the ice, waiting to get clubbed.

I think this is a generic problem at a lot of colleges and universities, mind you. The only distinctive aspect of it I see at Swarthmore is the intense value that students and faculty put on being mutually supportive and not seeming to want to show up other students with showy or critical comments. (This is not to say that we completely lack students who are flamboyantly talkative, but I feel as if there’s a bit more reluctance here to stand apart.) In a lot of ways, this is a good part of the culture of the college, but it hobbles students a bit when the time comes closer to graduation to have to present themselves as confident, capable individuals whom someone should fund, admit or hire.

In general, this is why setting out to teach self-presentation is a tricky business. For one, it’s genuinely difficult to assess or grade self-presentation or speaking in a way where feedback works to help a student improve. The major pedagogy you need is more akin to the pedagogy employed in performance or studio art, where the professor needs to react in the moment, and where some of the feedback needs to be as public and shared as the speaking itself might be. That can get very sticky or emotionally fraught for many students. If you’re in a performance class, you expect that kind of judgment. If you’re in a small discussion class focused on an academic subject, you might not be so willing to go through that gauntlet.

More importantly, effective presentation of self is really not reducible to “public speaking” in the old way that this subject was once taught. I got into this issue a bit in a discussion about education and careers at 11d. When schools like Swarthmore tout the virtues of critical thinking and a liberal arts education for the long-term job prospects of our graduates, we tend to stress the value of flexibility and adaptability, that the liberal arts graduate can change as circumstances change. I think that’s basically correct.

Effective self-presentation is a big part of that adaptability, however. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t really matter whether you can think well. Arguably, you can’t think well unless you can speak and present well.

Presenting knowledge or arguments effectively involves putting together a lot of different sub-skills on the fly. You have to understand the context in which you’re presenting, you have to be able to very quickly read the organizational sociology of that context. You need to be able to quickly pick up cues about the psychology and cultural habitus of your audience and adjust when it’s not what you planned for. You have to know when what you’re arguing for is impossible or implausible, and whether there’s something else to ask for, when you’re setting the stage for a long-term objective or just making a temporary response to a situation that won’t repeat itself, when to yield and when to hold firm.

This is all very difficult to teach not just because it can be delicate to give real-time feedback to students, but because it involves some interpersonal, emotional and psychological skills which are not commonly made explicit or discussed as skills. You can’t just teach about those skills in a classroom setting, either. Students have to do other things to learn them: get involved in organizations, work in a group, play on a team, take responsibility for a decision.

On those rare occasions where ideas like “emotional intelligence” receive pedagogically explicit attention, they tend to be constrained to painfully bland normative managerial discourses, to be entirely about how we should get along well with others, play nice with other children, be good citizens, and so on. This is deadly. It’s better not to talk about this stuff at all than talk about it in these terms.

If you teach skills in an academic environment, you’ve got to be prepared to make those skills intellectually lively, contentious, open to interpretation and argument. When I teach writing or reading, I’m not just teaching how to write or read, I’m asking whether and when to do those things, studying why we read or write, discussing what the limits to writing or reading might be. Skills have to be as open to the question, “So what?” as any other subject matter, and you have to teach with a willingness to accept a wide variety of answers to that question.

If we’re going to teach something like “emotional intelligence” as a part of skillful presentation-of-self, one explicit premise from the outset needs to be that we are not teaching how to be a good person or play nice in the sandbox. There are people who are highly skilled at purposeful self-presentation who present as eccentric or as gadflies or as disciplinarians. Effectiveness as a speaker or a presenter is not a function of how nice or respectful or caring you are.

In his working life as an attorney, my father was extremely skilled at reading situations and “dialing in” the self-presentation that would most effectively push for the outcomes he was professionally committed to seeking: he could be just another guy with the guys, he could be the bullfighter jabbing and inciting an opponent, he could be light and funny or volcanic and volatile.

Like more than a few highly effective professionals, he didn’t have the same nimbleness and flexibility when he was outside the focused environment of his workplace. The key point as far as higher education goes is: that’s your problem, your life, work it out yourself.

What we’re concerned with is the competencies you have as a thinking, educated person. Personality can be an issue in learning skillful self-presentation: a narcissist or neurotic by their nature has a hard time with critical parts of the skill-set, such as being able to imagine how you sound to other people or how you’re coming off in the context you’re in. But personality shouldn’t inhibit most people from a baseline competence in self-presentation. Shy or bold, introvert or extrovert, quiet or talkative, nice or asshole: those are not limit conditions.

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5 Responses to The (Skilled) Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

  1. Laura says:

    I’m actually about to present on a piece of this issue. In teaching my gender and technology course the way that we did, putting a lot of responsibility on the student to present their arguments about things, to put those arguments within the context of the course material and to think about how they might go over in the real world. It became clear quite quickly who was and wasn’t good at this. Some just didn’t put forth the effort and probably wouldn’t have done well even if the class had more traditional modes of teaching and assessment. But some got overly anxious about their presentation or were shy or whatever. And while a few of those were able to overcome that anxiety, some weren’t and I worry for them.

    I got good at staking out my position and presenting myself in grad school, where the whole point is to put forth your own ideas as distinct from everyone else’s and be able to stand behind it. Shortly after doing this in class, I took the show on the road and learned bit by bit how to present to an audience. I’m not the best speaker on the planet, but it’s a skill I wish I’d had more practice with in my undergrad days.

  2. Western Dave says:

    This was the topic at the last breakfast of my 20th reunion. Many of us felt like Swarthmore encouraged certain bad habits that later hurt us in the workplace. We learned how to win arguments and beat the hell out of each other in seminar and then go out for drinks and do it all over again next week. But in the real world, when you beat the hell out of somebody intellectually in a meeting or public forum, they don’t really want to go out for drinks with you. They think you’re a jerk who showed them up and they start plotting revenge.

  3. Tim Lacy says:

    This is an interesting topic for undergraduates, graduate students, and even for many working professionals I know. But your Associate Provost’s workshop sounds like it could go in a number of directions. Off the cuff, there’s the:

    (a) Dress-up, look nice, smile, and feel confident angle. You’re then emotionally into it. It assumes you have the speech skills (see below). It works okay, maybe, in a pure presentation scenario—a short presentation mind you.
    (b) Rhetoric and logical skills angle. This enables you to be an effective exchanger/debater. This emphasizes fairness and listening skills, I think. It works well in a teaching and meeting scenario.
    (c) Speech/intonation angle. This falls under dramatic reading, perhaps. Again, this works well for pure presentation. And it’ll hold you together longer than (a).

    Both (a) and (c) are mostly superficial. But I think that (b) is the most important. To me the other two are window-dressing for (b). The skills college, graduate, and professionals need fall mostly under (b).

    But perhaps my tripartite schema simplifies things too much? – TL

  4. benjamin says:

    To be honest, I’m pretty excited by the prospect of a place like Swarthmore engaging the teaching of self-presentation in a way that only Swarthmore can. I greatly valued the education I received at Swat, but, if it wasn’t for my extra-curricular experience in the performing arts, I would have had a difficult time presenting myself in graduate school. That being said, I think the culture of Swarthmore lends itself to teaching self-presentation, now that attention is finally being paid to it, in a uniquely useful way.

  5. Timothy Burke says:


    As I understand it, the workshop is very much B, all the way. Though I wouldn’t underrate the place of c) in that. Rhetoric isn’t just words: it’s performance.

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