When you are asked to talk about yourself as a person, where do you start? I always felt I knew myself as a person pretty well, but if asked to write a personal statement for a specific position, I found myself stumped. Where should I begin? What interesting story do I have to tell? After multiple tries, I always found that starting with a relevant anecdote made it easier to write about myself. As though developing a character in a story, I tried to paint a concrete scene that clearly illustrated my personality and values. And I figured that artifact speech provided a useful starting point when developing original, personal stories.
Last week, I asked my students in Fundamentals of Speech Communication to bring objects to class for a three- to five-minute presentation that explained how the objects represented them. I borrowed this exercise from my faculty mentor, Dr. Joan Schwartz, but I asked my students for a lengthier presentation to allow them to develop a fuller narrative about themselves. The speeches were enchanting: From the most banal-looking objects spilled compelling stories of struggle, growth, and transformation.
I assigned the artifact speech after about a month into the semester, so the students were more familiar with their audience and the classroom environment. And in the beginning of the semester, I had presented my own speech—introducing the Samuel Beckett portrait postcard I got from one of my professors at the Graduate Center after surviving the first semester—so the students could get a sense of what the assignment was. By the time the students were asked to give their speeches, they were prepared to share their stories.
Two factors are important in these narratives: what matters to the speaker and why it matters. The artifacts students brought to class were ordinary objects: a ring, a pair of shoes, an old basketball, a picture, a cross, a bill, an apartment key, and even a disposable lobster bib (unexpected, but pleasantly surprising!), to name a few. But when the speakers started to unpack the history of the objects, even the most commonplace among them led to sincere and earnest stories. In an assignment like this, speeches often start with stories of acquisition. The objects are mementos from a particular event or relationship. As the speakers walk the audience further into their stories, vivid, lasting portraits of the presenters emerge. Through these stories, the students demonstrate their strength, hard work, and perseverance. They are triumphant winners in their fights against adversity. It is also clear what loving hearts they have and how much they are loved and valued by the people around them.
My students presented a colorful range of stories. Over the jingling sounds of apartment keys, I heard a proud and independent young adult talk about supporting herself financially. Through the tattoo of a koi fish swimming against the current, I saw another young adult overcoming his loss. Baby pictures brought out stories of young women maturing into strong mothers. A cross and a coin conjured up memories of loving family members. Behind a camera emerged a quiet child maturing into an aspiring artist. A basketball testified to its owner’s self-discipline and determination. Over the rustling sound of a disposable lobster bib, I could imagine hearing a mother and her grownup daughter having a long overdue but happy conversation.
On the surface, the artifact speech may seem like an easy task. I designed it as a low-stakes assignment, counting for 5 percent of the final grade. However, presenting an ordinary object and speaking about oneself for three to five minutes actually require significant effort; students who time their speeches quickly realize that three minutes is longer than they thought. This is where student input in the preparation and rehearsal stage becomes apparent: To meet the required time, students must develop a full narrative explaining how their objects symbolize them as people. In other words, the project involves intense intrapersonal communication; the students must reflect on what has shaped them into who they are.
In a community college classroom where many students had to experience challenges before finally coming to college, this exercise can provide an invaluable opportunity for students to reflect on themselves and be reminded of their strength and their potential. That said, artifact speeches are more than simple show-and-tell exercises. I find the artifact speeches to be a fertile ground for self-exploration. They are part affirmation of self-worth and part self-discovery. They have the power to inspire and empower others. Sitting in the audience and listening to my students weave a detailed tapestry of colorful personal narratives from the loose ends of life, I felt so proud to be surrounded by a group of strong people who have so courageously made their way to the class. I could also feel students supporting each other through their verbal comments and in their applause.The students related to each other’s stories, and they felt empowered, as some reflections reveal:
“The speeches presented by my classmates, in my opinion were the perfect way to express, communicate, relate and view each other in different light, in different manner, where we can understand what has influenced us to become who we are today and help elevate each other reach the goals we are working so hard to fulfill. To break down walls and see our true personalities, to allows not to feel insecurity and make mistakes, so together as a group we can work together and pick each other up.”
“I would like to commend everyone who stood up in front of an audience in class and delivered their speech. The exercise gave us a chance to learn heartfelt and personal situations that we would probably not have discussed otherwise. Although I let my nerves get the best of me, I felt empowered and supported by my classmates.”
“Last week, my classmates brought objects that represent themselves and shared with the class how and why the artifacts mattered to them. There were many items and heart-warming stories. As I listened to their stories and the history behind their objects, I realised that I have had it easy in life. I had no idea how much pain and suffering my classmates have endured in their personal lives. It taught me not to judge others too quick. You never know what’s going on in their personal lives, they’ll either be happy, or they’ll be sad with a happy face. Speaking to others in public had always made me feel super anxious, but doing these presentations along with my classmates had made me a better speaker. I now have a better picture of how I should present and what to expect from an audience, There’s nothing I need to be afraid of.”
“Our Object speech presentations were spectacular. Everyone brought something that truly had some significant value to them. I was honored to be able to share those intimate moments with my classmates, I applaud everyone that came forward courageously. Thank you.”
The stories made visible a community that was building in the classroom. I believe this exercise can help students discover their own voice and unique stories that can develop into strong personal narratives. In presenting their speeches, I believe the students had real aha moments that will keep encouraging them to grow and to surprise more people in the world.