Public speaking can be a terrifying experience and one that continues well into adulthood. However, it’s an essential skill for students to learn and, like many skills, requires ongoing practice to improve.
Since few of us are naturally gifted speakers, how do we teach our students this vital skill without potentially traumatizing them for life? Here’s how you can help them develop this skill while having fun.
What’s in a name?
When it comes to public speaking, fear seems to be integral in the name. By calling it public speaking, we are emphasizing its importance and creating the impression that it is a performance rather than a skill. This is often the root of the fear for many students.
Let’s change the names: instead of public speaking, let’s just call it speaking. All speaking is done in front of an audience, so let’s emphasize the speaking rather than the public. This opens up a variety of possibilities for activities.
Students can still give traditional speeches, but they can also give monologues from plays, reenact scenes from movies, do general drama activities or simple impromptu speaking games. All of these activities will help them to develop their public speaking skills. The core skills can be taught without instilling fear of failing and being graded on a formal speech.
Practice, don’t study.
Public speaking is a skill. Therefore, it requires practice rather than academic study. We’ve all spent hours studying how to give successful speeches, but it’s practice that makes perfect. Learning to be good at public speaking is not that different to learning to play a musical instrument: you have to spend time honing your skills, not thinking about them.
Yes, there is merit to studying good speakers and techniques. Imitation is definitely part of the process. However, students also need to speak in order to have a chance to mimic the skills they observe in these good speakers. If we don’t give our students the chance to practice speaking—and to make mistakes in a safe environment—all the study in the world is not going to help them magically to become great speakers.
Confidence is built through speaking. Speaking requires practice. Practice requires time. Let’s get students confident before we start overwhelming them with techniques, grades and high stakes public speaking performance.
Size does matter.
Students, and not just the shy ones, are easily intimidated by crowds. If their first experiences with public speaking is in front of the entire class, it’s understandable that this may lead to a lifelong fear of public speaking.
Let students work in small groups as they test the waters of speaking publicly. This is a common technique for ESL and EFL students, but it’s one that we seem to forget about when teaching students who are native speakers.
Small groups lower the stakes for students. Sure, students can still fail, but the audience for that failure is limited. By keeping groups small, students also have more opportunities for feedback from their peers. Similarly, they immediately have more chances to speak because several groups can work simultaneously instead of an entire class listening to just one speaker.
Teach what to say, then how to say it.
Many students are scared to speak publicly because they’re unsure of how the audience will respond to them. One of the easiest ways to reduce some of this fear is to teach students what to say. This doesn’t mean that we should write their speeches for them.
We need to provide more scaffolding for students. By offering guidelines such as bullet points of what type of information to include in a verbal response, we take away some of the pressure for students. Yes, this may also take away some of their creativity, but that’s why we need to emphasize that it’s a guideline only. Allow students to use their own ideas; the guidelines are there as a safety net for the students who are less confident.
As students gain proficiency and confidence in their speaking, slowly replace the content guidelines with techniques for successful public speaking. When the content is no longer a problem, students are able to focus on their delivery with more confidence because they are less likely to get a negative response from their peers when they present solid content.
Encourage students through praise.
Every student, no matter how poorly they speak, does something well when speaking in public. Perhaps they have good facial expressions or naturally use supporting gestures when speaking. Maybe they use pauses effectively or project their voice well. Some students will have good content, but stutter from nervousness. You may need to look really hard for the positives in some students, but I promise you, they’re there!
Praise the good things and soothe the nerves with tips and strategies to improve. Even as adults, we bloom in positive feedback and praise. Constructive criticism is certainly necessary, but we can’t afford to forget that students need praise if we want them to continue striving to improve. Try to minimize the criticism—even the constructive kind—and remember the feedback sandwich: positive, negative, positive. Make that final positive a double because that’s what your students are likely to remember most clearly!
Remember to give students a chance to shine. Make it easy and make it fun. After all, if they’re having fun, you’ll have a lot more fun as you see their terror fade to enthusiasm when speaking in public.