It used to be said of many business executives that the thing they feared most was public speaking. On the schedule of ordeals facing them, death was ranked only third. And yet practically all adults these days are required, at some stage, to speak in public: it could be amongst friends at a wedding, to thank somebody or to make an announcement. It could also be in front of an audience of shareholders, before a large group at a major event, in court, or even on television. Some people will appear to take all such occasions in their stride whilst others will be extremely nervous and break out in a cold sweat, finding it difficult to discover their voice.
Much of the success enjoyed by speakers has to do with an innate confidence; they may know that they are well regarded in their own community and be at ease with the task, or this confidence may come from the knowledge that this is a skill that they have mastered and that they are well prepared. Conversely, those who lack that confidence struggle to be heard. Sometimes the address to an audience will not be successful if the speaker has failed to plan what he or she will say. In the field of public speaking, as in others, a good experience breeds further good experiences, whilst a bad one may undermine one’s willingness to do it again.
So how can schools encourage young people to find their voice? We might first examine the changes in educational methodology over the past decades and how this supports young people in this quest. Even the youngest children will appear in a nativity play or equivalent (and usually unintentionally cause hilarity). Children are also now used to presenting to the rest of their class on regular occasions. Compare this to the days when every lesson was teacher-led and children had no such early practice of the skill of public performance. Children are now more used to standing up to speak and this helps enormously with their later development.
Secondly, public speaking skills can be enhanced by reading aloud. Pupils might be invited to do this first to the rest of their class and later may be invited to address the rest of the year group at an assembly. That said, of course, it is important that the passages chosen are appropriate to the reading level of each child so that it is not possible for the child to fail. The pupil should be well-prepared beforehand with an adult listening to and guiding before ‘going solo’. It is exactly the area where parents can offer support and encouragement at home. Reading aloud can be made fun and enjoyable to brighten up a dull afternoon or boring car journey.
Thirdly, drama plays a very important role in enhancing young peoples’ public speaking skills. Internalising several passages in representing a character in a play allows for children to engage with an audience directly, without a piece of paper in the way. They learn that people will listen to them if they project their voice and how to make that all-important eye contact. They know that they will get the applause at the end. The reward is tangible. The audience may even reinforce the performance by exclaiming ‘bravo, bravo’ and thus confidence is built. Yes, yes, I can do it!
The next step is a little more tricky. It relates to the formulation of an argument and defending it in the year group setting or perhaps as part of the school’s Debating Society. I use the term ‘year group’ advisedly since it is unusual for a thirteen year-old, for example, to feel that he or she has the intellectual agility to joust with a sixteen year-old – but it is not out of the question. A mismatch of sparring partners, as we know, saps the confidence of most, but what amounts to a discussion (with rules and protocol), amongst similarly aged young people can be a great confidence builder. It is also a terrific preparation not only for the legal world, but for every field of human endeavour where there is a ‘cut and thrust’ of ideas.
Before confidence can be built in this arena, however, some considerable preparation is essential. The argument must be logically developed and prepared. The counter argument must be anticipated and a counter to that thought through. Practice is essential. If Churchill prepared for many of his major speeches in front of a mirror to perfect his timing, so can our thirteen year-olds. Gradually we learn the importance of intonation and timing, of getting the right phrase in the right place, of ending with a definite conclusion. Strong eye contact underlines the proponent’s belief in what they are saying, creating a conduit for information through which they can build a case. 'I have made my point and I think that you believe me, and that’s why I am now sitting down', internalises the speaker. Bingo!
Reading aloud, drama and debating as pathways to effective public speaking are enhanced by intelligent and empathetic teachers who recognise the differing abilities and confidence of young people and set realistic goals for them. A ten year-old may be asked to show an eight year-old child aspects of the school. That could be confidence building for the older child. A twelve year-old may be asked to show adults some aspects of the school. If each of these imaginary guides is to have a positive experience in taking the lead, it is often down to the EQ of the teacher arranging these experiences. The teacher’s perception of the likelihood of success is critical in ensuring it leads to a positive experience for the child.
Lastly, here are some thoughts for young people once they have prepared what they have to say, are impassioned in their views and have practised which parts of their speech to stress so that they come across in the best possible way to the audience. I hope your stomach is churning and you feel that you are about to be swallowed alive because then the adrenalin is pumping through your system! (You can look up what adrenalin does to you on the internet and it is, of course, extremely positive for your speech making.) Then remember to check your technology: do you have a microphone or must you project your voice? (Goodness me, this is important as everything will be wasted if people at the back can’t hear you.) Then take a deep breath before you begin. Start your delivery in the knowledge that the audience will want you to do well. They will almost certainly come up to you afterwards to say 'well done'. And you are away. Once you have done it successfully you can do it again and again. Here begins the development of your ability to speak in public and the honing of a skill that you will value throughout your life.