Business students practice public speaking in front of dogs

Last December, former Director of American University's Kogod Center for Business Communications Bonnie Auslander introduced to her old department a new trick to help those students feeling anxious about public speaking.

"I advertised them as serene and deeply attentive," Auslander said, "and they are but they're dogs and they do wander a bit."

At a certain point in the rehearsal process of every presentation, Auslander feels, we all need to practice in front of a living, non-judgmental audience to find our confidence. And so, she offered students looking for such a supportive sounding board audience dogs.

"I like to call them locally sourced dogs," Auslander said. "We find dogs usually from the quad."

Zach Fernebok graduated from American University's Kogod graduate program in June. Now an assistant account executive at a marketing agency in Atlanta, Fernebok credits Copper the audience dog with teaching him to slow down, pause and appreciate those listening, when he speaks to an audience.

"I seem to humanize the dog," he said. "And I just wanted to do really well for him because I felt like I was wasting his time. Something clicked and it made sense and it really drove me to perform well."

Time Inc. Chief Human Resources Officer Greg Giangrande would neither admit to ever having presented work material to a dog nor would he recommend the technique to even the most dogged job-seeker, but he did say he thought every school should teach public speaking.

"It doesn't matter if it's a large audience or if it's a small business meeting," Giangrande said. "The ability to communicate effectively, influence others, persuade others is critical for advancing your career."

And at American University this fall, students looking to bolster their presentation skills may once again practice their public speaking on whichever dogs the business communications center can lure inside off the quad."

"We have some data and it definitely shows a decline in anxiety," Auslander said. "We've had students say: 'I can't present in class.' Then they present to the dog and they say: 'You know what? I can do this.'"