Survey results famously show a greater number of people fear public speaking more than they fear death. Whether this research is apocryphal or not, there is no doubt that many people avoid public speaking at all costs and can literally make themselves sick with worry and fear over appearing in front of a group. There is even an actual term—glossophobia—for those whose anxiety in this regard can be so debilitating that it turns into a diagnosed social anxiety disorder.
At Colorado Academy, we provide many opportunities for our students to speak publicly and certainly hope we help ease the anxiety related to this important skill. Starting in the Lower School, teachers ask students quite regularly to “stand and deliver” on everything from how they spent their summer vacation to reporting on a book they just read to sharing the results of their research on a given topic. It’s a vital part of our curriculum, and we see it as an important life skill, as well.
Still, not every student grows completely comfortable with the practice, nor does everyone show equal skill and technique. Like most school activities, students’ abilities run the gamut, and some of our more introverted or public speaking-averse students may never truly grow to love giving presentations. That said, we continue to believe firmly that this essential skill needs to be developed and practiced. Thus we continue to find the safest, most supportive environments in which to foster all students’ abilities.
Throughout my career, I have seen various teaching strategies and grading rubrics to support instruction of public speaking. I have also seen a wide range of philosophies as to how often and under what circumstances students should be asked to present to their classmates. Generally speaking, the trend has moved away from individual presentations towards group presentations, where students in teams of three of four share the spotlight. Not only does this develop public speaking competency, but it also engenders stronger collaboration skills.
Of course, technology now also plays a major role in the means by which we practice public speaking. With the exception of graduation speeches, sermons, and a few other purely oratorical situations, it’s rare to see anyone delivering a talk of any kind without the visual aid of a slideshow or other audio-visual accompaniment. If used skillfully, the A-V component can enhance and augment audience interest; unfortunately, we have all seen situations where it can be too much of a speaker crutch instead. Like most things, a balanced approach is key. To help our students, we combine direct instruction on the best practices in presentations with training on the technology tools to support them.
One of my favorite Upper School public speaking exercises marks its tenth year as an assessment tool in our ninth grade English class. Pecha kucha, a Japanese word for chatter, is the term for a presentation in which twenty slides are presented for twenty seconds each. This quick format leads to sharp and engaging public lectures that are exactly six minutes and forty seconds. I discovered this format years ago when author Daniel Pink promoted it as a concise and effective public speaking tool after he had seen it used in Japan in 2007. Knowing we needed more public speaking in our freshman “Coming of Age in the World” English course, I suggested that students use this format to speak about a personal subject of their choosing. We have been doing this assignment ever since.
Similarly, our new “Five Up” series, introduced by Visual and Performing Arts Director Dr. Julianne De Sal, allows speakers to deliver an important message in a quick format, echoing some of the best aspects of the famous TED Talks series. These short speeches, delivered by faculty, students, alums and parents, have been a huge hit amongst the school population. Everyone in the community thereby gets to see a strong example of public speaking.
In a helpful guide posted recently, Drew Pearce of Dropbox suggested that presenters should focus on three specific areas: 1) Establishing your story; 2) Preparing your delivery; and 3) Connecting with your audience. Each of those three larger categories has helpful hints within it, including the very empathetic advice of thinking of your audience’s needs as much as you think of your own desire to simply get through the presentation. The blog post also emphasizes using slides as visual support for the presentation, not as a way to have your audience read everything you are saying. This is a point I stress with my own students, which, nevertheless, is hard for some to avoid.
Outside of the classroom, there are many opportunities for our students to practice public speaking. I wrote recently in my weekly blog about our four-year tradition of senior speeches. On a voluntary basis, students may address the entire Upper School student body on a topic of their choice. In most cases the speech takes on a sort of “This I Believe” quality, whereby students speak about one of their passions or share wisdom they have obtained over their years in school. One might think that in this format only our most comfortable and polished public speakers would participate. Yet, to my surprise and delight, many seniors take the big leap into tackling one of their biggest fears—public speaking—and use this safe space and the power of their own beliefs to take on what may be a long-standing phobia for them. The results are poignant and inspirational, and the positive role modeling for younger students is significant.
We will continue to encourage and develop this important skill in all our students. We hope that public speaking will never be perceived as a fate worse than death!