Jordan’s face flared a bright shade of crimson as he turned toward the smart board, lowered his voice, and proceeded to mumble each word from the slides verbatim. We all know students who will do everything they can to avoid speaking in public, including opting to take a zero over presenting. My heart aches for those students. I was one! Public speaking anxiety is real, but there are certain things teachers can do to help students cope. Keep reading for some of my favorite public speaking tips to reduce anxiety.
Teachers can help students cope with public speaking anxiety by supporting their topic selection. We need to guide them toward choosing a topic they enjoy. When students select topics they already have background knowledge about, their confidence increases.
For instance, when I was in school, I was nervous to stand up in front of my peers and give a biographical speech about a president. I didn’t care about that topic, nor did my peers. It was painful.
On a related note, some students need help understanding their audience. If, for instance, students are passionate about genetically modified foods, that doesn’t necessarily mean their classmates know about it or even understand why they should care. We can ask:
Who are you going to be presenting to? How much does your audience know about this topic? How can you help them see how it relates to their every day lives? These questions are important for framing the way students prepare for their presentation.
Finally, it’s meaningful if we can guide students toward talking about a topic that matters. Students need to understand why others would want to know about. They will be less nervous if they know that their topic is one that can make a difference in the world.
FUN, SHORT IMPROMPTUS
Begin by asking students to give short, impromptu speeches. Depending on the level of public speaking anxiety your students have, you may even have them do the impromptus in small groups or with a partner before speaking to the class.
Impromptus are fun, low prep, and low stress. It’s expected that we mess up with an impromptu speech because we haven’t had any time to prepare. This mindset helps students to step outside the box in terms of thinking they need to be perfect.
Short speeches like impromptus build students’ public speaking stamina. Each time, slowly increase the amount of time you would like students to speak for. This idea is the same as it is for building reading and writing stamina.
One simple way to do this is to give students book prompts. Just ask them to stand up and speak about their book based on a prompt after silent reading time. I use these fiction and nonfiction discussion task cards to guide impromptu book commercials during book club.
Sometimes students need to plan breathing breaks in their presentations to reduce public speaking anxiety. This is one technique that always worked for me when I was nervous. Some possibilities include:
- encouraging questions and responses from audience by asking a high-interest question to prompt discussion (students benefit from training with this skill)
- using polls to gauge audience’s thoughts (Google Forms, Poll Everywhere, or even a stand up / sit down or thumbs up / thumbs down approach work well)
- incorporating images and video clips that add value to the presentation while also allowing the speaker time to relax can ease nerves
- using humor (i.e. – short jokes, political cartoons, comics, video clips, and tasteful self-deprecating comments) to add comic relief
These are all techniques that students understand through modeling and gain confidence with through practice. Scaffold students’ understanding by conferencing with them about their intended approach.
POSITIVE AUDIENCE CULTURE
One of the main contributors to public speaking anxiety is fear about the way the audience will receive the presentation. Teach students how to behave during a presentation so that immature and disrespectful behavior is less likely to occur.
Be specific about which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. For instance, is it okay for students to whisper, make eye contact across the room, lay their heads down, snicker, recline with arms folded in front of them, organize their binders, work on homework for another class, read? Probably not.
Instead, what should they be doing? We probably want them to make eye contact, smile, nod, sit forward, take notes, ask polite and thoughtful questions, applaud, and etcetera.
During presentations, be diligent about monitoring for any signs of bullying, including students who may be photographing or video taping their peers.
I always ask my students to fill out one praise, one suggestion for improvement, and one question or takeaway from each presentation and give it to the speaker. If you are concerned about students being rude, you could always filter the comments before giving them to the student who presented.
I’m sure you’ve noticed. Most students don’t practice before they present. This is not acceptable to me. Of course they are going to feel some anxiety if they get up in front of a group and realize they have no idea what they want to say or how to pronounce some of the words.
So, don’t give them the option to finish visual aid the night before the presentation. Ask them to turn in the visual aid (if required) a week before the presentation itself is due. Then, spend time conferencing with each student or group. Have them practice for you so that you can give them feedback. This approach does take time, but it’s how they improve.
Feedback doesn’t just have to come from the teacher. I’ve also let students practice in small groups to get suggestions from peers. During this time, I circulate, participate, and monitor conversations. Providing student with feedback stems, like the following, can help.
- I really liked how you…
- Have you considered…
- The most interesting fact I learned from your presentation is…
- One suggestion for improvement in the future would be…
- I really liked how your visual aid…
- What if…
- It would help me if I could better understand…
- I’m confused about…
- The part that I found most engaging and interesting was…
- You could relate this to our lives as teens by…
Just like with any other type of learning, it doesn’t do students much good to give them feedback after their presentation is finished when they have no time to change it. Make sure kids know they will have opportunities to grow and learn. We need to help them understand that one speech does not define their public speaking abilities. Each speech they give in school is a practice round for life – for a future career.
Not all students will be willing to try this, but if you can relate it to how athletes prepare for a game, they might see the value.
For example, the night before my first day of teaching…ever…I mentally prepared. This is a habit that engrained from playing sports. I pictured myself being confident and building relationships with students. I pictured how the day would play out and how we would transition between activities.
Creating this movie in our minds, while it may sound cheesy, is so powerful. It makes us feel as though we have already done what we have prepared for. If we can teach students to mentally visualize their speech in advance, it will help them.
One of the most powerful things we can do when it comes to helping alleviate public speaking anxiety is P-R-A-I-S-E the heck out of students’ presentations. They need to believe that they can present well in front of their peers. We have the power to build their confidence or tear it down. When helping students set goals for speaking, we need to tread lightly. Focus on one thing at a time. Point out everything they are doing well, and do everything you can to make sure students see themselves and their speeches in a positive light.
And those are some of my favorite tips for alleviating public speaking anxiety. Speaking in front of groups is a part of life. Some people are blessed in that they enjoy it…they don’t feel the nerves. Others of us wish we could be as brave while presenting to a group as we are in our heads as we mentally visualize how it will go. Regardless of the party we personally belong to, it’s in students’ best interest to provide them with techniques that will help them be successful.
Still looking for more ideas? Lauralee at Language Arts Classroom has you covered with some specific public speaking activities.