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Comm Studies’ John Haas Creates Public Speaking App

The first university-developed public speaking app, created by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Associate Professor John Haas, aims to boost students’ confidence in their oratory skills outside of the classroom.

Each semester, around 1,700 students take a public speaking course at UT, learning oratory skills and techniques that prepare them for presentations, speeches, or confidence in casual and business conversations. However, no course seems to calm the fear of speaking in front of an audience.

UT TOPS—short for Tennessee Online Public Speaking—engages users through its searchable topics feature, offering bit-sized insights into situations such as dressing for success, public speaking for video calls, and how to present research posters.

The new app became available on iOS and Android devices earlier this month.

On-Campus and On-the-Go Options

In 2016, Haas established an on-campus public speaking center in the Communications Building as a way to provide students private feedback. Two years later, with funding from the John Haas Student Experiential Learning Endowment established by Peyton Manning (’97), he began thinking about how to expand the center’s assistance.

“One of the things that is really different about public speaking from every kind of activity you have in class is how public assignments are. When a student writes a paper for a professor, and the professor marks it and returns it to the student, only the student sees my marks unless they choose to divulge it,” said Haas. “In our classes, there are very few situations where assignments are private, and that creates a different environment, different relationship.”

However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way faculty and students interacted, and foot traffic ceased Haas’s progress with the center. That’s when he decided to pivot his attention to the resource that students use most to find information—cell phones—and began developing the app.

This semester, students in applied oral communication courses will learn about the app as a resource, but Haas hopes that people outside of the UT community will find the app helpful in their everyday lives.

Down the road, Haas plans to expand the app to be able to provide real-time feedback to students on their presentations. With this iteration to the app, instructors will be able to quickly identify a speeches’ main components, pick up on vocalized pauses, and quickly return that information to the student.