Telling Brooklyn Stories, part I: Impromptu Speeches in the Archives
Telling Brooklyn Stories, part I: Impromptu Speeches in the Archives

Students in an Effective Speaking course craft and deliver impromptu group speeches about primary sources examined in the archives.

Students in an Effective Speaking course craft and deliver impromptu group speeches about primary sources examined in the archives.


In this exercise model, students examine primary sources in the archives, then craft and deliver collaborative impromptu speeches summarizing their observations.

Because this course was part of a learning-community entitled “Telling Brooklyn Stories,” my students examined a variety of maps of areas surrounding their Brooklyn campus. (This activity fits into a larger semester-long project about maps. View a complementary exercise here.) The model can be used with any topic or set of primary sources; likewise, the public speaking component can be incorporated into non-communications courses (I have shared helpful evaluation guidelines here).

I want students in my public speaking courses to see themselves as people who can communicate effectively in a variety of contexts. I shape curricula to move from impromptu speeches to formal speeches requiring more preparation and research. Activities such as this one, a low stakes assignment in which they are likely to succeed, allow students to build confidence and to practice the verbal and non-verbal delivery techniques they learn in class.

The activity requires critical thinking and teamwork, and pushes students to synthesize their analysis in a clear and competent way. The group speech promotes collaboration. And the skill of informal speaking will benefit students no matter what field they pursue.


Students should be able to:

  • compare and contrast a suite of historical maps
  • effectively summarize their conclusions in a 4 minute impromptu group speech


Through an in-class collaborative glossary exercise conducted before the visit to the archives, students learn about types of maps (for example: manuscript, political, topographical, thematic) and key terminology (for example: legend/key, scale, title, neatline).

Students have already learned elements of effective verbal and nonverbal delivery.* Particularly important to this exercise are well-crafted introductions, conclusions, and transitions. Students have already conducted individual impromptu speeches in advance of this group speech exercise.

*For instructors outside of the communication discipline, see Further Reading below for suggested resources on effective verbal and non-verbal delivery.


Number of Visits: 1
Duration of Visit: 2 hours 15 minutes

This activity fits into a larger semester-long project about maps. View a complementary exercise here.


10 minutes

20 minutes
Intro to maps

10 minutes

60 minutes
Small group work

10 minutes
Wrap up: prepare speeches

20 minutes
Wrap up: deliver speeches

5 minutes
Wrap up: instructor feedback

Archives staff lead an introduction to maps. They use various examples from the collections to illustrate key terminology and to differentiate map types.

In small groups of 4 – 6, students compare and contrast three maps: a transit map, a manuscript map, and a commercial map of downtown Brooklyn.

The instructors provide students with a handout to guide analysis.

Wrap Up

Together, each group takes 10 minutes to develop a short impromptu speech on one or more of their maps. They determine the map(s) they want to discuss; the content of their speech; and who will deliver the introduction, main points, and conclusion.

Each group then delivers their 4 minute speech to the class.

At the end of the visit, the instructor provides general feedback on the quality of the content, organization, and delivery of the impromptu speeches.


Speeches are evaluated on content (quality of analysis and information), delivery (verbal and nonverbal), and organization (meeting time requirements, clear main points, clear introduction, clear transitions, clear conclusion).  

Students are graded as a group on the content and organization of the speech. Each individual is evaluated on his or her own delivery. In order to reduce student anxiety, instructors should provide the evaluation forms well before any public speaking assignment.

Archival Materials Used

Group 1
Area of Brooklyn Heights bounded by Remsen Street and Furman Street, circa 1800; Pierrepont-[18–?]e.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Boerum Hill Fourth Annual House Tour, 1969; H. Dickson McKenna Collection, ARC.060, box 1, folder 6; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Hagstrom’s Map of New York Subways, Elevated Lines, 1942; Flat Maps NYC-1942.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 2
Area of Brooklyn Heights bounded by Fulton Street and the East River, circa 1800; Pierrepont-[18–?]g.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Downtown Brooklyn, circa 1990; Flat Maps B A-[1990?].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Official map and guide of the Brooklyn Elevated Railroad, 1885; Flat Maps B C-1885a.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 3
Map of area roughly bounded by Fulton Street, Joralemon St., Clinton St., and Pierrepont St.; Pierrepont-[18–?]a.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Heart of Brooklyn: A Great Shopping, Amusement and Business Center, circa 1940; Flat Maps B A-[194-?].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Brooklyn and Queens transit system, Borough of Brooklyn, circa 1930; Flat Maps B C-[1930?].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 4
Map of the Benson & DeBeauvois property in Brooklyn belonging to H.B. Pierrepont, 1868; Pierrepont-1820(1868).Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Boro Hall Civic Area Center, 1955; Flat Maps B A-1955.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Map of the New York City Subway System, 1955; Flat Maps NYC-1955.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Group 5
Map of H.B. Pierrepont’s Farm in Brooklyn, 1856; Pierrepont-[1856].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Montague Business Improvement District, 2003; Flat Maps B A-2003.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Brooklyn Heights Residential District of Wall Street, circa 1921; Flat Maps NYC-[1921?].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Further Reading

Beebe, Steven A. and Susan J. Beebe. Public Speaking: An Audience-Centered Approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Lucas, Stephen. The Art of Public Speaking. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

National Communication Association. Accessed January 2014.

To cite this page:
M. Justin Davis, “Telling Brooklyn Stories, part I: Impromptu Speeches in the Archives,”, accessed [insert date here],


M. Justin Davis
Assistant Professor of Communication Studies
City Tech (CUNY)
view author bio >

Used In

SPE 1330: Effective Speaking

A learning community in which first-year students enroll in the same English Composition and Effective Speaking courses. Both fulfill general education requirements.


Instructors can use an impromptu speech as a wrap-up activity regardless of discipline or student ability level.

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