Communication Currents

Instructor’s Corner: Disaster Day! An Impromptu Group Speech Activity

June 1, 2016
Instructional Communication

Douglas E. Pruim of Purdue University has led his Disaster Day activity with more than 20 classes over the past 10 years in different educational contexts (small liberal arts college, community college, and major research university). The activity integrates the fundamental skills taught in the basic speech course, fosters participation through group work, and introduces new concepts and skills.

This activity helps students practice skills before formal instruction, which has been shown to help students remember better when formally learning. Disaster Day encourages students to learn in self-directed groups and pushes them out of their comfort zone by asking them to perform an impromptu task with a limited time frame for instruction.

The Activity 

To prepare, print out five “disaster memos” or sets of instructions. Each should describe a unique and looming fictional disaster. Place the memos in manila envelopes and mark the envelopes one through five. Past memos have addressed disasters such as nuclear meltdowns, oil wells globally running dry, a massive solar flare, and other more fantastical scenarios such as alien invasions, zombie outbreaks, or The Terminator’s Skynet.

At the beginning of class, inform students that a number of fictional disasters have befallen or are currently befalling the country. Divide the class into groups of three or four students. Groups from the class will address the nation as representatives of various governmental agencies with information about the disaster and any necessary steps to respond to the disaster. Each group will choose or be assigned an envelope. Have the students open and read the disaster memos, and ask them not to discuss their disaster with the other groups.

Give the groups 30 minutes to research their topic and prepare a two-minute presentation with a visual aid using PowerPoint or Prezi. Each student will be expected to present a portion of the presentation.

Pruim says he typically lets students prepare for their presentation outside of the classroom, noting that they enjoy the change to the routine. He also gives students guidance about where to find information for their research. For example, the Centers for Disease Control website may provide procedures for infectious disease outbreaks.

When the groups return in 30 minutes, remind them that they have two minutes to present. Allow for a minute between group presentations. The total time for presentations is about 15 minutes for five groups.

After all groups have presented, take about five minutes to debrief with students. Encourage them to discuss what lessons they learned and integrate other lessons they have learned since the beginning of the semester. Ask them what was specifically challenging and what was beneficial about the activity. Often, students will mention that their normal fear of public speaking was not present during this presentation. Pruim writes, “Students often mention things such as, ‘I wasn’t nervous because we were just having fun,’ and ‘It didn’t feel like a speech.’” He encourages students to embrace this mindset for future speeches. Ask students what worked well about others’ presentations. This fosters unity in the classroom and reinforces the good communication practices seen in other students’ work.

Pruim says that students respond to the activity with a great deal of enthusiasm and typically regard it as one of the highlights of the semester. While presentation quality varies, “I have often been surprised at the passion the students put into the project and the humor they incorporate into their presentations,” he notes. 

About the author (s)

Douglas E. Pruim

Purdue University

Doctoral Candidate