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Teaching Strategies that Teach Speech Skills

Jordan Catapano

Amidst all the electronic communications we now enjoy, there’s still something powerful about authentic, face-to-face interactions. A live concert just feels more moving than a recording. A comedian just makes us laugh harder in person than on television. Talking to the one you love feels closer when you’re beside one another rather than using FaceTime.

Being together in the same physical space offers a certain exchange of energies between communicants. In fact, in an era where we have so many ways to communicate while apart, effective, face-to-face communication has an increased value, like a vanishing resource. This is why when it comes to public speaking, it’s essential we use teaching strategies that equip students with the skills and confidence to comfortably speak to a crowd.

Teaching Strategies When It's Not Your Not Students’ Favorite Skill

If you asked students to create a top-ten list of their least favorite school activities, speeches would probably be near the top. Public speaking still ranks as one of Americans’ highest fears, and there’s little wondering why that’s the case. Public speaking puts the speaker in a very open, socially vulnerable position. The social safety nets are removed, and speakers must stand alone while facing down an entire crowd.

Interestingly, students who are jovial, extroverted, and confident in their classroom seat inexplicably “clam up” when they move just a few feet from their desk and stand at the front of the room. Participating in a class discussion is far different from delivering a set of prepared statements to a roomful of peers paying unbroken attention.

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Students fear messing up. They fear forgetting their speech, or stuttering, or leaving their fly open. They fear the passive judgment peers could impose. They fear saying something unintentionally offensive. They fear the timer, the rubric, the grade. And at times, they even fear saying something so powerful it just might change the lives their audience.

Of course, there are always a few students who enjoy this task, though they are typically the exception rather than the rule. Still, we persist with focusing on teaching strategies that include public speaking skills because these promise to improve confidence, develop articulation, consider verbal and non-verbal communication components, fine tune their composition, study examples, and generally enhance their ability to interact face-to-face with fellow human beings.

The Playbook

There are many, many effective ways to teach public speaking. Methods may change based on the age of your students, the type of course you’re instructing, and the overall goals. In general, we want to steadily help students become more comfortable and confident with speaking in front of a group.

Here are some of the key components that may help you design a system for getting your students to meet that goal:

Discuss the benefits and the detriments. First we acknowledge what’s awesome about doing speeches, and in the next breath we acknowledge what really stinks. This leads to some fun, candid discussion. Ultimately, as we look at the list of pros and cons, we invariably come to the same conclusion: If what we get out of speaking is so great, then certainly we can put up with some of those pesky cons.

Clear assignment. I give students their speech assignment early in the process, so they have plenty of time to grow comfortable with their topic. For a first speech, I make the topic as easy as possible so that there’s very little research or complicated points to grapple with. My first goal is to get them comfortable in front of their peers, and that works best when they have uncomplicated content so they can focus on their performance.

Two speeches I’ve used as a first speech:

  • Talk about someone you admire and how that person has impacted you.
  • Talk about a word that defines you, an object that represents you, and a person you want to be like.

When students talk about a subject they already know, it helps them focus less on the details of the words and more on the way they’ll deliver those words in their performance.

Sample speech. I always give my own sample speech to my students. A speech is different than the run-of-the-mill instruction I provide on a daily basis, and it’s important for students to have a standard set for them.

I model everything about the speech process and delivery. I write a speech from scratch based on the prompts, produce an outline, prepare my speaking cards, ask students to watch for certain aspects of delivery, and even videotape and reflect on my speech. I even show them little tricks, like how I take deep breaths to calm myself down and how I take a few sips of water before performing.

Sample preparation. The speech performance is just the icing on the cake. I show students my whole preparation process along the way. They see my script or outline. They see my notecard(s). I talk to them about how I practiced and prepared. They learn that I deliver a quality speech not just because “I’m the teacher and I can do anything,” but because the speech is the tip of the iceberg and the preparation is 9/10 of the task.

Sign Up. Instead of asking all students to be ready on Speech Day 1 and then randomly selecting speakers, I simply have students sign up on a list for which day they’d like to go. This signup usually occurs about a week in advance of speeches beginning; I just list how many slots per day are available, and students write their name down on a slot.

Time for Preparation. I think it’s particularly important that class time be allocated toward preparing speeches. Since students are delivering their words in front of their entire class, much more hinges on their content than if it was for teacher’s eyes only. Composing in class gives them an opportunity to get feedback as they go.

Preparation for speeches also includes time to practice performing their speech as well. I give them instructions and methods for practicing speeches, and then release them in and out of the classroom to independently think through their performance. I also encourage them to stand in the exact spot they’ll stand in when they deliver their speech, so it won’t seem so scary when it comes time to actually perform.

We talk about practice quite a bit, and students are heavily encouraged to deliver their speech to parents, siblings, classmates, friends, pets, even stuffed animals. I tell them, “If the first time you perform your speech is when you’re actually delivering it to all of us, then it will be tough!”

Additional samples. At times it is helpful to view other sample speeches. Many TED speakers make for good resources, and our class critiques what it is about any given performance that makes that speaker effective. I’ll even have students reflect on which aspects of any given performer they may try to include in their own speech. For first speeches, we don’t worry about content or strategy too much, but as subsequent speeches have more challenging requirements, we’ll study sample speeches for their rhetorical strategies.

It’s Time for the Speeches

The day speeches begin is a special day. A nervous energy circulates the atmosphere. and that day’s speakers look to peers for help and encouragement.

Audience respect. Before any speeches begin, I make sure all students agree to be attentive, respectful audience members for their peers. The stage is a lonely, vulnerable place, and everyone needs to play their part in making a positive atmosphere. They applaud for everyone.

No reading. Speakers are never, ever allowed to just read their speech. That is called public reading and is not the same as public speaking. Reading means their attention is downwards at their script, not outwards at their audience. There is little eye contact, and even less connection. Instead, students are allowed to bring either notecards or a tablet with keywords or phrases. The speech, I tell them, is in their head – the notes are just reminders.

No podium. The ultimate goal is to have students feel comfortable giving speeches in any situation. A podium by all means is a practical tool to have in a public speech, but leaving the podium to the side puts no barriers between students and their audience. Perhaps for later speeches a podium will be allowed, but initially students are challenged to have nothing to hide behind.  

No poster boards. Poster boards worked very well for junior high science experiment displays or presentations in a bygone era. In today’s technological environment, it doesn’t make sense to use anything other than an electronic presentation tool – such as PowerPoint or Prezi – to supplement the speech. I also encourage students to bring in actual objects as visuals as well, but no more poster boards.

Skills to Assess. Usually speech assignments have a minimum structure requirement for their content, and I listen to ensure they have these minimums and their speech makes sense. But rubrics have two sides: One for content, and the other for performance. On the performance half, I have three items I pay close attention to:

  • Eye Contact: How well do students maintain eye contact with their audience? Do they look at everyone, or do they look down, away, or over their listeners?
  • Physical Tendencies: Do students effectively use gestures to supplement their meaning? Are they in control of their gestures or victims of nervous habits?
  • Vocal Control: Do students use their volume, pace, articulation, and tone in effective ways? Do they interrupt themselves with “Ums,” “Likes,” or “You knows?”

The Aftermath of the Speech

Once the speeches are all said and done, the work continues. Students breath sighs of relief, but know that giving one speech is only a start. Here are some approaches we take after a round of speeches.

Class discussion. We’ll often have an informal discussion about the speeches or speakers we liked. I encourage students to compliment one another openly, and as a group we reflect on what techniques seemed to work.

Videotape + Reflection. Yes, I make it extremely awkward for students because I require them to film their speech (on their school-issued iPad) and then watch themselves. Like athletes going to the tapes, each student has a chance to see and hear how they really performed. I then ask students to answer a few questions related to their performance and their preparation process.

More speeches and reflection. Typically students will perform four speeches in a given year, following the components in this playbook. Before each speech, they’re asked to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in their previous speeches. This continual reflection-and-trial process helps students grow as they focus on developing themselves as effective speakers.

Was this helpful? What else do you wonder about teaching speeches in your class? What else would you add to this playbook? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.

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