Considering the brain-rotting influence of text messaging, video games and TV in all its current incarnations, I thought I might have to enter the 5th grade classroom on Career Day riding a unicycle and juggling Persian kitties.
Instead I tried a question. How many of you have done any public speaking?
No hands. Blank stares. One girl slowly twirled her hair.
Okay, how many of you have given an oral report? Every hand shot up. Ah, I said, so each of you has spoken in public. Now, how many of you felt nervous? How about the night before your report? How about as you were walking to the front of the room?
Anxious looks, tense smiles. The hands slid lower, but not down. Every child owned up to a sizeable amount of stage fright.
With everyone now on board, I told them they were not alone, that more people are scared of public speaking than spiders, heights, and being trapped in tight places. Research has shown that more people are frightened of public speaking than of dying. The last was punctuated with a picture of Homer Simpson as the Grim Reaper.
I paused, realizing a change had taken place. Kids who routinely used technology unimaginable when their parents were in fifth grade were suddenly enraptured by the ancient art of oratory intended to inform, entertain, or persuade. In fact, the morning had begun with announcements delivered live via a Promethean Board from the school TV studio. One of the boys before me had done the sports report. Which created an opening.
Were you that good the first time you did the sports? No, he grinned. How did you improve? Practice, he said.
The first takeaway, then, is that practice and repetition boost confidence, which makes any speaker less nervous. They scribbled in their notebooks.
Several of the kids said they played sports. Typically, they saw themselves doing well before a game or match. When it came to oral reports, they defaulted to the worst scenario, like messing up and being laughed at.
Another takeaway, kids: visualize a positive outcome rather than something awful. See yourselves delivering a smart, compelling talk. See the class captivated by your knowledge and energy. See the teacher nodding in appreciation.
They took notes and asked more questions. Pounding heart? Normal, I said. It’s part of our physical makeup that traces back to mankind’s beginning, when it was fight, flight, or become dinner for some wild beast. We talked about using deep breathing to slow down a rapid pulse.
But when I talk in front of the class they’re all looking at me. Well, you want them to look at you. We discussed and practiced purposeful eye contact, and using a smile to show confidence. We talked about showing passion and energy with open body language and natural gestures. No one will be interested in you or your topic if you come off looking bored or uncertain, right?
I showed them a video of a young girl speaking about elementary physics, and then asked them to assess her performance. What was perfect? What needed polish?
They were tough but thoughtful critics. And they answered, as I’d requested, in voices loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. What really told me they’d been listening, however, were the handwritten thank-you notes I received later.
One girl informed me she was applying the tips and tactics not only to public speaking, but to my life! Future entertainer? Lawyer? Politician? We’ll see…
Read more posts by Steve Piacente, a former print journalist and correspondent. Steve is a blogger for JenningsWire Online Magazine.
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