Teaching classes for students in undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education programs offers professional speakers a wealth of opportunities to develop their craft. Perhaps the most significant among the benefits of such teaching relate to topic development.
As someone who’s devoted a significant amount of time teaching over the past 15+ years, I can testify to how this work has enabled me to develop a repertoire of workshops, seminars, webinars, and other programs for other audiences. It’s also increased my confidence and skill on the platform.
For the purposes of my discussion this discussion, I consider “topic development” to cover four tasks. First, there’s identifying new subjects for development as stand-alone programs. Second, there’s incorporating new issues and themes into existing programs. Third, there’s the complete redesign of existing programs to reflect knowledge and insight. Finally, there’s employing new and varied instructional techniques to deliver this content.
At first blush, the prospect of teaching seems daunting. I’ve taught classes ranging in length from three to 45 hours, spread over a period of days, weeks, and even months. This kind of time commitment demands stamina—not just preparation and personal organization. On top of that, the financial compensation is meager when one calculates the total hours involved in putting together a syllabus, planning individual lessons, classroom teaching, conferring with students, grading, and tending to other administrative matters.
Yet in my opinion the benefits of teaching far outweigh these limitations. For me, it’s all about connecting with adult learners on subjects about which I’m passionate: public relations, leadership, organizational behavior, and career development, among others. My understanding and appreciation for these subjects is now far greater which makes me a more effective consultant, trainer, coach, and writer.
Here’s an overview of my experience as a teacher in conjunction with one class and how it has inspired my topic development activities. I’ll consider an “Essentials of Public Relations” class and outline the process I set up (in 2002) to prepare and one which I’ve used in modified form since then as I taught the same class and others.
- Use the content in existing programs as a starting point. Existing training programs offer a building block for teaching, that is the foundation upon which teaching a more broadly framed class can be based. In my case, I was delivering programs privately on presentation skills, media interview preparation, how to generate publicity, and writing for the media at the time I was initially asked to teach “Essentials of Public Relations.” I felt confident based on having delivered these programs and my related work that I had at least a chunk of content that would be readily adaptable to the classroom. At the same time, I recognized that these programs were based largely on my experience melded with what in retrospect was a scattershot consideration of other resources on these topics. Moreover, not having taught adults before, my existing programs had been shaped by only the most rudimentary understanding of instructional design and adult learning, among other topics critical to training program development and delivery.
- Read the core text or main resource you plan to require students to read. I’d heard again and again that the textbook is critical in classes like mine, so I began by reading an entire textbook, from cover to cover. I selected a book from among several options based on its currency and relevance to working adults. I noted how the text complemented and supplemented my experience; sections where I felt I had little related experience; and how the material was presented for an audience for the whom the class would be their first – and, in many cases, only – exposure to public relations principles and practices.
- Build a basic syllabus for class based on chapters in textbook. The chapters in the textbook I chose for “Essentials of Public Relations” naturally lent themselves to separate sessions in the class. In my case, these sessions covered defining public relations, and its relationship to advertising and marketing; law and ethics; the public relations problem-solving process; writing; publicity and media relations; public relations on the Internet; investor relations; government relations; employee communications; community relations; and crisis communications. To organize my idea creation and collection of related material on each of these topics, I created separate folders for each. At the time, much of the material I found was available only in print so paper folders sufficed. I later added electronic folders on my computer’s hard drive to save the materials I found on the Internet. In addition, I scoured my existing filing system for relevant articles, and identified books in my library I’d found helpful in the past for review in conjunction with teaching the class.
- Match other programs you offer to topics in the syllabus. I took the content from the programs I delivered and cut and pasted it into the Microsoft Word documents for the appropriate sessions of the class. This step provided me with a starting point for what seemed like an overwhelming task, and meant I would subject my content to scrutiny and modification that teaching preparation and delivery process would necessarily involve.
- Update current programs with insight gained from textbook and additional resources listed at the end of the relevant chapters. While reading chapters on subjects I covered in my existing training programs, my mind overflowed with ideas strengthening my content in areas where my efforts were not as thorough and systematic as they could be. I returned to hard copies of my existing programs and made notes based on my observations and textbook readings. I also identified publications and books under the “Additional Resources” headings that I felt inspired to read, secured them, and then integrated my efforts into revised versions of my core programs.
- Identify areas not covered by current programs in textbook, pulling resources listed in biography for future review. After completing Step Four, I was staring at several class subjects (i.e., crisis communications, ethics, community relations) on which I had never delivered private training programs. I compiled a complete list of such topics, then secured articles, books, and other resources listed in the appropriate chapter for additional review and reflection.
- Match professional experience to remaining chapters in textbook. Upon further reflection, I realized that the breadth of my professional experience offered examples for inclusion in just about every separate session. I reviewed client files and written work spanning over a decade to isolate experiences for inclusion in each class. These became the stories and case studies demanded by students seeking a “real world” perspective on issues raised in their textbook.
- Identify key industry, trade, and research publications in addition to newspapers, magazines, and other media. Read and curate them to build a library in the discipline. I subscribed to the main publications serving public relations practitioners including those produced by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). I later added research publications and joined other relevant professional organizations. These organizations produce an ongoing stream of publications including research on public relations and the latest teaching techniques in the discipline. Finally, I added a range of books covering public relations theory, history, and cases studies to my personal library. The bottom line is that I feel confident about my ability to stay abreast of issues facing the public relations profession as a result of getting up to speed to meet the demands of my students for insight and information on current and historical trends, research, and applications.
- Develop and deliver individual class sessions, plus exams, written assignments, and other evaluation/assessment techniques. This step involved the actual teaching and subjecting my newfound insight and education on specific topics to the rigors of the classroom.
- Assess and evaluate class and individual sessions. At the end of each class session I analyzed how well the content flowed; student interest and perceived comprehension, including troubling issues and/or questions; and the effectiveness of instructional techniques. In general, I noted what I should change the next time I deliver the session, what I needed to consider for possible revision, and what worked well.
The end result of these ten steps is a 20-45 hour class (depending on the school where I’m teaching) on public relations that can be broken down into separate programs on the individual topics included. Programs can be longer or shorter, depending on individual client interests. I have more than enough material and varied presentation techniques based on ongoing classroom experience and refreshing of content.
As a result of my teaching, I now can conservatively offer nine training programs (related to public relations) – and could easily add to this count. I offer my clients experience, expertise, insight, and programs subject to the rigors of the classroom. Most important, I consider myself a professional educator who has cultivated a breadth and depth of knowledge about my discipline. This result is possible for all speakers who apply my process to teaching classes in their chosen field.
Note: This article was originally published in 2002. The original has been lightly edited here. The core concepts remain as valid today as they did then, even while technology now makes these processes a lot more efficient.