Dr. Marianne Neuwirth, Director of Oral Communication Programs

By Taylor Morrow-

Marianne Neuwirth, Director of Oral Communication

Photo courtesy of Marianne Neuwirth

Do you struggle with public speaking? Would you like to perform better during job interviews? These problems are just a few of the many things with which Dr. Marianne Neuwirth and the Oral Communication Program can help you. Professor Neuwirth answered a few questions about what oral communication means and how the new program at Menlo College can help you.


  1. What does Oral Communications encompass and why is it important?

All communication involves an exchange of meaningful messages–it includes written, non-verbal, and spoken communication.  Oral Communication focuses on the way we exchange information through speech, including the central importance of listening and how non-verbal cues can support or contradict spoken words.

We scholars who specialize in the study of messages refer to our field as “Communication” rather than using the plural noun “Communications.”  This is because Communications generally refers to information technology, whereas Communication refers to person-to-person interchanges.

Because most of us speak and listen with others on a regular basis, we assume we know how to do it–so teaching people something they think they already know how to do can be tricky.  But like an athlete whose regular training translates into overall elegance in the way they move through space, so too, does training in Communication translate into greater eloquence in daily speech and more critical listening; it enhances one’s effectiveness, confidence, and success.  It also enables people to give presentations that others walk away from thinking, “That was amazing!  I want to engage audiences like that.”

It is vital that students, and people in general, know how to effectively convey their thoughts and listen comprehensively to others because we haven’t yet reached the stage where we can read each other’s minds.  Nearly every job description I’ve seen cites “excellent written and spoken communication skills” as desired (or required) criteria for prospective hires.  When we have refined communication skills we can also be more savvy consumers who can identify faulty reasoning and unsubstantiated claims.  These skills can also help us negotiate better salaries, create productive working environments, and develop more satisfying personal relationships.  If you change your communication, you change your life!

  1. What is your background in Oral Communication?

I took an interesting and unusual route into the field of Communication.  I’ve always been interested in health and healing; I earned my Bachelors of Science in Occupational Therapy (OT) and have a minor in Anatomy and Physiology.  I worked as an OT for many years, doing hand therapy and working in trauma units and rehabilitation centers with individuals recovering from strokes, spinal cords injuries, gunshot wounds, etc.  I became concerned with the bigger picture of what’s going on with the planet, so I switched careers and earned my Master’s in Speech Communication from SJSU. I also earned my PhD in Communication from the University of Utah, also known as the U of U.

The U of U is nationally recognized for its Environmental Communication focus, and studying this specialty involved my being trained in Public Address and Rhetoric (Persuasion), Organizational Communication and Socialization, Conflict Resolution and Negotiation, and Interpersonal Communication.  How we communicate with each other shapes our perceptions and therefore our world, and I combined looking at how we talk with each other and how we talk about nature and how this intersection shapes policies and what values we prioritize.  My research projects have included gathering and assessing the stories that kids tell about nature, and looking at how Wilderness Programs socialize boys and girls differently using stories and interactions with nature as conduits for this instruction.  My research results were both fascinating and eye-opening.

I’ve been teaching in this field for many years, the last nine of them at Stanford University.  I have taught courses in Public Speaking, Persuasion, Organizational Socialization, Conflict Resolution, Negotiation, The Art of Asking Questions, Leadership and Storytelling, and Interpersonal Communication.  While at Stanford I worked with over 2300 individuals on their various presentations and teaching strategies.  I also specialized in training researchers how to explain what they do in succinct and compelling ways, and I worked with the Development Officers on the art of Storytelling and Storylistening, so they could help donors feel proud of their contributions to Stanford.  I still teach Storytelling and Interpersonal Communication at Stanford.  I also have a private consulting practice where I’ve trained individuals giving TED talks, speaking for the Author Series at Google, giving media interviews, and improving the written communication on their websites.

I like this field very much–I think my background in OT helped me notice subtleties and nuances in speaking and movement that may not be obvious to others.  I appreciate the opportunity to teach how truly remarkable and malleable communication can be.

  1. How can you help students with the different aspects of oral communication?

Many teachers here at Menlo are already doing a great job of including an oral communication component in their courses, and many students are doing quite well.  To build on these efforts, some instructors have asked for my input regarding rubrics for presentation feedback and assessment. Others have asked me to come and give 60-90 minute workshops to their classes on guidelines for effective presentations, including the dos and don’ts of PowerPoint.  I’ve also met 1:1 with several students, providing suggestions on how they can create and deliver first-rate performances.

I’m always glad to offer any needed guidance on preparation and delivery, including organizing thoughts, structuring ideas, identifying core aspects of an argument, and giving refined delivery.  Delivery skills include voice projection, voice variance, posture, gestures, body position, appropriate dress, and so on, all of which affect audience members’ perception of you.

Another service I provide, and what I think I’m most known for, is conducting mock interviews.  I videotape all of the sessions and provide clear and directed feedback, so candidates can enter a real interview with confidence and robust preparation.

It is perfect that Oral Communication is part of the Writing Center, (which we are now calling the Writing and Oral Communication Center), since speaking and writing go hand in hand – they strengthen and complement each other.

  1.   What is your vision for the future of Oral Communication at Menlo College?

I like that my title is Director of Oral Communication Programs–plural–because I see great potential for more offerings of Oral Communication services.  My vision and main goal is to provide as many opportunities as possible for students to speak and listen to each other with greater skill, ease, and confidence, encouraging genuine connection.  For example, I organized an Open Mic Night called “So You Think You Can Tell a Story,” and 18 people attended and told very funny, serious, poignant, and triumphant stories–it was an amazing thing to be a part of.  I’m also coordinating efforts to start a Multimedia Center on campus, and many students have already taken initiative to resurrect the Radio Club and to start a video and music production studio.

In the interest of helping students befriend and strengthen their own voices, I am planning a “Calisthenics of Voice” workshop for Spring Semester.  When we hear our voices many of us think, “Is that me? I sound so weird.”  There are physiological reasons that our voice sounds different in our head than it does when we project it outward.  By learning exercises and techniques for proper voice projection, articulation, and dynamism, participants will be able to speak with authority, clarity, and vitality.

In addition, I’m collaborating with our most-excellent library staff to create a site for Oral Communication resources, including premier TED Talks, well-known historical speeches, texts on speech-writing and evaluation, guides for visual communication, and so on.  I have other ideas, too, but I will follow my motto that I share with students:  “Brevity is Beautiful.”

So, to sum up, Communication shapes us as much as we shape it, and it is a skill that we can affect and improve.  Please come and see me!

Categories: Features, Interviews