- Most of our first experiences with speaking were in a classroom environment where we had to write a paper then present it to the class. There are a multitude of problems with this.
- The strategies people have given for hundreds of years to overcome speech anxieties don't work.
- We wait to teach speech until students are already in vulnerable peer driven ages and stages.
- The importance and life impacts of learning how to speak in public is not impressed upon students so they don't see it as something they need to do or learn.
- And the biggest problem...Public speaking has always been taught in a way that it seems all about YOU.
I've read countless books and curriculums on public speaking but few, if any, will get that extremely shy student over their fear of public speaking. They either take a very formal approach to presentation skill which is too far ahead of where most students are starting or they simplify it to where the power and influence of what you can learn from public speaking is lost.
Probably the reason most students and thereby adults are afraid of public speaking is their first experience. We all had the class that we had to write a report on (Insert name of object we don't care about here). We then had to come to class, maybe with visual aids, costumes or even worse just stand there and give the report. What happened? We stood there and READ our report! This is not public speaking; this is reading out loud. We read it to be sure that we didn't miss something in the paper because our grade depended on it. It wasn't a subject we were familiar with or able to talk candidly about. If it was English class it was even worse because a dangling preposition, wordiness and repetition, or improper verb tenses could be held against us. And sadly most of a student's speeches will come in English class. English teachers are generally not a great place to learn speech. No offense to English teachers but speech writing and essay writing is a lot different. I have been told by corresponding English teachers in places I taught speech that I ruined their students with my speech class. I beg to differ.
I teach with the Hamburger Method (or extended 5 finger essay, paragraph or whatever similar strategy we're given in the early English years) You must have a bun on top and bottom. They are made of the same thing but slightly different. These are your introduction and conclusion. And the inside is all the fixings or the main points. We literally have a meal attached to our first class that you get tickets to the burger (or sandwich bar) and you can only get what you gave. Many students will eat that day with half a sandwich and probably no bun. I will also say here that I encourage this to be done impromptu or with outlines only, especially at first, never a fully written paper. Kids can generally talk about something that interests them but handing them pen and paper freaks them out because it became formal. Plus it hinders them from truly speaking to the audience. Using this method I got many students over the hump and into more advanced English classes because they now felt confident enough with the structure and form of basic writing. Now they just needed the words, grammar and eloquence to make it an A+ essay.
I laugh at the most popular methods taught for overcoming speech anxiety. "Imagine the audience in their underwear", now in what world does that actually help? But the more popular approach is to look at a spot over their heads or in the back of the room. That's a terrible idea. Speeches are suppose to connect to an audience and you instruct the speakers to NOT connect with the audience. Always be over prepared is another one I see in many curriculums. I see the theory here but see the drawbacks more glaringly. The over prepared is generally the over memorized. They get midway into a speech and forget a word or even worse a section and they can't regroup and move on. The over prep gives more time to over think and in turn possibly over worry as well. The converse is also true. If you are told you will only do well if you over prepare and you know you didn't, then do you take a self defeating attitude and kill your potential before you've even start? These methods don't teach comfort but rather just getting through it.
Some students will do speeches in elementary school but most of those are again report reading. But in high school most students won't escape the necessity of giving a presentation. As we mentioned earlier there are problems with when and where this happens, but even in the best of settings, if we've waited until hormones have hit, peer groups dominate and social norms are insisted upon, we're setting them up for an enormous hurdle to climb. Even students with unlimited speaking potential can fall prey to the peer pressure, self esteem issues and other insecurities. We need to start early and start fun. Young students have fewer insecurities about standing up and talking on things they really love. If they learn from a fun aspect they will transfer over into those more mundane speaking projects with much more ease.
My biggest success story as a teacher was a young man that literally would lean back away from you when you talked to him. He was so shy that I knew him over a year before he would speak to me. So yes, I convinced him he should take speech. He was very faith driven and I convinced him that he should join speech to feel more confident in speaking out about his faith. Using fun, life interacting speech assignments and games he would try to give speeches but would just freeze, looking for that perfect word that was suppose to go next. It wasn't easy for him and it didn't come naturally by any means. About mid semester we did interview skills. I explained to the class that many companies had gone to group interviews and this would be critical in their future. I taught the kids how to take real life experiences to apply to the questions since as students they didn't have job experiences yet family, school, sports, etc could be their answers. Being from a large family I asked a question that he could relate to. He applied the life in a large family to the question and literally talked over the allotted time without those awkward silences. We all jumped around and celebrated but the smile that came over his face was priceless. He went on to add an impromptu topic app to his smart phone, telling his mother this was the most important thing he could learn from his high school years. He went on to do competitive speech and debate with our team. Don't get me wrong, there were still awkward long pauses and he was far from comfortable, but he saw the importance and worked really hard at it. The young man participated in a 6 hour long interview process for a scholarship at college and received the full award. He accredits it to my speech class. He even sent me his scores from his college public speaking class. Funny enough, he got counted off for talking too long. It's a life skill that we all need and learning it early will only help later in life. Be it class projects, interview skills, business presentations or more personal endeavors like wedding vows, eulogies, or personal faith testimonies, public speaking will come in handy in our future.
So speech was all about pass or fail in that classroom assignment. We've seen it was all about acceptance or rejection in that peer group sitting there watching. We don't like public speaking because in our minds we're identifying all the flaws in ourselves. Did I say the right thing? Did I wear the right thing? They don't like me. My speech is boring.... The list of things we find wrong is endless. But the problem is we're focused on ourselves. Speeches are not about us. Read that again. It's not about YOU!! Somewhere in those boring textbooks we read about the term audience. Term defined and let's move on. But wait! The most important part of the equation IS the audience. Therefore this speech isn't about you; it's about them. If they speak on something they love first before we assign them the mundane school subject report, then they can give a gift to the audience of their knowledge and passion. Once we frame speaking as gift giving, it's no longer about you. But you only enjoy gift giving when you're invested in the gift. So first speeches should be their ideas, off the cuff, with love and exuberance. Even then it's still hard for that shy student. I have had on a couple ocassions little girls in the front of the room giving that first speech shaking with a little fear and maybe even a tear running down their face but they have this big smile and say, "I'm sorry I know it's not about me, I just need to teach my body that now." By the second or third speech the tears are gone and the shaking is barely noticeable. And if you've really done your job they come back for speech again next year, they loved it so much.
There are many different tactics I use and a more detailed list of how to improve speeches which I am considering writing a book/curriculum about, but taking these basic ideas you can reframe public speaking as the most important thing you can learn in school as opposed to the #1 fear in life.