"Let the speech be better than silence, or be silent."
- Attributed to Dionysius of Halicarnassus
We all speak in public every day. Sometimes those public speeces are formal but more often than not, they are informal; conversations between peers. For our students it could be trying to persuade friends to do a certain thing, such as going to a movie or hanging out at someone's hous,e or recounting an experience such as ye olde what did you do on the weekend?
For younger students, formal speeches often begin with the time honoured tradition of show and tell, and most students are ok with this. But at some point they gain a fear of speaking from the front of the room to all of their peers and we see nerves, stuttering, forgetting the point, dropping palm cards if they're being used, off-point rambling and any number of delaying tactics.
"There are two types of public speakers in the world; the nervous and liars."
- Attributed to Mark Twain
I still feel incredibly nervous about delivering formal speeches but have worked out some routines and strategies to help calm the nerves, whereas informal speeches, speaking in front of a class of students (also known as teaching), or presenting training sessions in my current role do not generate the same feelings.
Returning to students, there are several things we as teachers can do to help them.
Normalise Public Speaking
Often, the only time that our students deliver a prepared formal speech is as part of a speaking assessment task. There are usually very few other opportunities where they are required to stand in front of the class and speak on any topic for any length of time. Normalising public speaking in low (or no) stakes environments can help reduce the feelings of anxiety or nervousness by making it a routine practice.
I utilised a process that I call PowerPoint Karaoke - though it goes by many other names). I would randomly select a student by pulling their name from a deck of cards - each student was in there - and they would be tasked with speaking about a random image for one minute or I would tell them there would be three images and they had twenty seconds on each image.
Sometimes the task would be descriptive, focusing on developing language and vocabulary; and sometimes it would be narrative focused and they would need to link two or more of these images together. We would PowerPoint Karaoke a few times eah day, usually as a filler task before the bell and every student spoke once before we started again. I made it very clear it was a no-stakes speech, and that we were using it purely to help develop confidence. Over the course of the year, the quality of the speaking improved, the ability to link images improved, and the prevalence of nerves and delaying tactics decreased. I then introduced topics where student would need to make an on -the-spot persuasive argument.
Model and Show Exemplars
This strategy is, I would like to think, common sense, but make sure you model good speaking, and show examples of good speeches. Talk through what makes a good speech and show examples of easily accessible speeches for your students. There are plenty of amazing examples of students delivering powerful speeches on YouTube (check this list), not to mention hundreds of incredible speeches by adults.
Practice and reflecting on practice is how we develop many skills and speaking to an audience is part of this. Encourage your students to record themselves practising and watch the recording back, select one thing they liked about it and one they think can be improved on and to focus on those the next time they practice it.
The first thing that should always be focused on is knowing the speech intimately so that if they lose their place on their palmcards it is not the end of the world. The few formal speeches I have had to give such as my graduation address or the keynote at the THRASS conference in 2019, in the leadup I have practiced multiple times, with the aim to not need to look at my notes. Having that close knowledge of the content goes a long way towards reducing anxiety and nerves. Personally, where there is the opportunity to use a slide deck, I do so but put images as prompts, rather than slides full of text.
They may, once they are confident with content and can deliver it fluenty, focus on cadence or emphasis, on looking awawy from their plamcards or notes, or on relaxing body language. It will vary a lot student to student, but they can develop their overall confidence nicely through this sort of process.
These are just a few ideas for strategies to help students develop their speaking skills, but I would love to hear what you currently do in this space. Please comment below and let me know.