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College of Arts and Sciences

Milstein students hone public speaking skills

April 1, 2020

Eliza VanCort, a motivational speaker who specializes in workplace communication, facilitated a series of public speaking workshops for Milstein Program students earlier this spring. 

In the workshops, VanCort gave the students tips for effective public speaking. For instance, she encouraged students to use silence as a tool rather than a weakness. She explained that, when faced with a difficult question in interviews, many people feel the need to immediately provide an answer ,which can make one appear flustered. Instead, she recommended students slow down and adjust their bodies before answering the question.

“During the workshop, I felt nervous yet excited to better my public speaking skills,” said Peter Munn ’22. “The session felt unique, in that each of us got 15 minutes of focus, which was incredibly valuable. Over that brief time, I felt like I gained the knowledge to become an excellent public speaker.”

VanCort explained that women are interrupted more often than men so they tend to pick up defensive speech patterns such as speaking faster in order to get their point across. Women often need to give more supporting evidence in order to be believed. 

“After the workshop, I became more aware of my body language on and off stage and hope one day I can also help my peers communicate their creativity and inspire confidence,” said Yue Ji ’23.

VanCort encouraged students to practice changing the cadence of their speaking by varying between fast and slow patterns. She also spoke about the importance of pitch and the need to avoid “uptalk,” or the upward inflection at the end of a statement. Uptalk, VanCort said, expresse doubt and can be misunderstood as a question. VanCort emphasized that non-verbal communication is key, and she recommended that students practice their public speaking skills in day-to-day life in situations such as ordering at a restaurant.

During the workshop, students gave persuasive impromptu speeches trying to convince their peers that eating large amounts of ice cream was a good idea. The silly topics, VanCort said, allow students to concentrate on their delivery and not worry about amassing facts. Students came up with amusing stories and fictitious supporting evidence for their pitches such as the “fact” that ice cream is the unofficial mascot of the Milstein program and can make you live forever. 

The workshop was provided by the Milstein Program. Students in the program earn a liberal arts education on Cornell’s Ithaca campus and combine their learning with two summers spent on Roosevelt Island at the Cornell Tech campus.   

VanCort herself is no stranger to performing in front of a crowd. After acting in New York City, she worked as an acting instructor in Boston, then moved back to Ithaca and opened up The Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca.

VanCort’s workshop turned out to be the last in-person workshop of the semester for the Milstein program. Students left the workshop with many key takeaways, including that being fearful of public speaking isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness.

“Being nervous is okay,” VanCort said. “It means you care. Go with it.”