Student-Speakers1It was an idea so obvious that Angel Vigil can’t believe he didn’t think of it years ago.

Public speaking is a terrifying notion for everyone – but the more you do, the better you become, especially if you start early.

As chairman of the Fine and Performing Arts Department, Vigil acted as host for all sorts of assemblies and school gatherings.

“I’ve been here 30 years and it has always been me, talking, introducing. I already know how to do that. My job is to teach kids how to do that,” he says. “Adults don’t have to be in the front all the time. Suddenly a light bulb went on – a wonderful opportunity where kids can get practice at being in front of crowds, public speaking, composing their thoughts, and having the composure that’s needed in the public moment.”

So the Student Speakers Club was born, with a hand-picked set of Middle  and Upper School students handling the emcee duties.

“Now that we’re doing it I wonder ‘How come I didn’t think of this a long time ago?’ It’s such a simple, clear idea that obviously should be happening,” he says.

According to the Gallup Poll, snakes have surpassed “the fear of public speaking” as Americans’ single greatest fear, though public speaking is still a close second. Vigil wants students to become comfortable in front of a crowd.

As student body president, CA senior Ellie King runs town hall meetings, “but in the assembly, that was the largest group of people I ever spoke to. It was a different level of pressure. … Now, when I go back and emcee the Town Hall Meeting, it’s not a big deal because I’m speaking in front of 400 people instead of 1,000.”

She jumped at the chance to be in the club, noting that public speaking is a far cry from memorizing a speech or reading an essay for the class. “Speaking in front of a class isn’t public speaking, it’s learning how to make a presentation. It’s definitely different,” she said says.

When approached by Vigil, she says, “that just sounded cool – it’s kind of fun, I think, to have students running the community events. It gives us another reason to be a closer community.”

“It’s definitely different. I like it. Whenever I’m speaking there’s always that one person I know who jumps out at me,” said seventh grader Aly Gallagher. “It’s almost easier to talk in front of people I don’t really know instead of my class.”

Gallagher’s biggest fear is the common one: “Going up there and forgetting what I’m supposed to say.” But she also knows that,  “Any career I choose there will always be a component of speaking in front of people.”

“I have a lot of experience in coaching people through stage fright. Everyone has butterflies in their stomach before they go out – that’s just human nature,” Vigil said. “Use your anxiety and turn it into something positive.”

“The worst speaker is someone who reads a speech. You can just give them the paper. You’re wasting their time,” Vigil says.

Some pointers he’s trying to impart to the students include:

  • Have a conversation with your audience.
  • Look people in the eye.
  • You actually can’t control a crowd; you can guide it in the right direction.
  • Focus, or the crowd will rattle you.
  • Recover from mistakes gracefully.
  • You don’t have to cast a magic spell. You just have to keep it moving.
  • If you need a little cheat sheet, hold it unobtrusively in your hand.
  • A crowd is really very forgiving; people want you to be successful.

It’s true – the crowd is forgiving. King found that out right away.

“The last assembly I had to emcee was an introduction to a musical where we had a bunch of students performing. I went out in the middle of the show…did the whole spiel, then went back to the curtain and Mr. Vigil said, ‘You introduced the wrong guy!’ I had to go out and say there’d been a mistake….but it was less of a big deal than I thought it was going to be. We just kept going.”


Thanks to CA Parent Mark Brown for contributing this story.