Learning to Speak in Public

Giving a presentation
Learning to Speak in Public

By Jeannette Webb 

When I started the educational adventure with my children, I felt that one of the most important things to teach them was communication skills. Whether they were going to be college professors, engineers, medical doctors, or missionaries (or any other career I could think of) they needed to be able to think well, write well, and speak well. A communications degree in college is pretty worthless, but the skill set is important and needs to happen in the K-12 experience. 

Several people have asked lately for details about the Communications Club I started for our homeschool group. You need to remember that this was years before the homeschool speech and debate leagues. There were no venues such as Toastmasters in our isolated location. And, I believed that learning to speak in public needed to start at a very young age. So, we had to start from scratch and I borrowed ideas from the 4-H program. 

Our monthly meetings were family events held during the day. So, moms would show up with their 10 kids or their 2 kids. I was the only mother present who was comfortable in front of the group, but these gals realized that they didn’t want their children to be as fearful as they were of public speaking. I required that a parent attend and help evaluate. No dropping kids off and having a free morning to shop. I was training them as much as their children. 

We kept our meetings to two hours, then finally split the group in half when we got too big for each child to have time to speak each month. Parents filled out evaluation forms for each student. Everyone was expected to pay attention and ask questions of the presenter when appropriate. 

Every child participated in every meeting. The tiny ones (we had kids as little as 4) were allowed to do anything they wanted as long as they got up in front (sometimes with a mom or sibling crouched down beside them). They were free to do show-and-tell, say a little Bible verse or poem, sing a song, anything at all to get them used to having an audience. 

The older ones had specific assignments. Each meeting I would give the assignment for the next meeting, model for them exactly what I wanted, tell them how they would be evaluated, and give them examples for topics. If posters were required for the next meeting, I’d give them handouts explaining letter size, color combinations, etc. that would make their work easier to see in a large audience. If I required a demonstration the next meeting, I would often do a bad example and let them tell me what I was doing wrong. This was their favorite thing of all! 

I usually started the year with a type of presentation that gave new speakers something to lean on, such as a poster presentation. The poster would clue them in to what they needed to say next and they could write a word or two on the back to jog their memory. For young students, we cut the traditional size poster board in half or quarters so they could easily handle it. In today’s technological age, many feel that this type of presentation is outdated, but I still feel it is an important skill. Whether on the mission field or working in the ghetto, your kids need to know how to make effective presentations without electricity or Wi-Fi.

We would then move to the demonstration. These were often food or craft related. It is an important processing skill to learn to use your hands at the same time you are talking.

The other categories we covered were: persuasive speeches (convincing others of your point without visuals), as well as a communications fair where each student produced a stand-alone display. This functioned much like a science fair, but we had all kinds of topics. The student stood by their display and answered questions.

If I were doing this today, I would add categories like:

  • PowerPoint presentations
  • Dramatic Interpretations
  • Extemporaneous speeches

I do have a caveat here. Some kids are just not imaginative, while others are born actors. Thus, doing the dramatic interpretations should be one of several options. I would also never attempt an extemporaneous speech until an older student was very comfortable with an audience and very experienced. It is a valuable skill, but one that can totally shut a kid down if they aren’t ready.

The Piranha Pack, a free-for-all where the entire group can verbally critique your presentation or debate case, is only for older, experienced speakers. This technique is for the stout of heart, but it is important. I’ve worked with kids in a prestigious gap year program that couldn’t handle a critical, honest assessment. Trust me, if your kid won’t make it in a college environment if they get their feelings hurt by this type of evaluation.

I would also add video taping on occasion so the kids could see themselves. This is often the best teacher of all.

The club would look different if you met on a weekly basis. You might spend the first week teaching (showing what you want), the next week selecting topics, the next week have a progress report, then the final presentation. You could divide the group up and have them on different schedules with half or ¼ of the group presenting each time. Just make sure they have time to prepare adequately with causing huge stress in the school schedule.

Believe it or not, 20 years later adult kids and their parents are still thanking me for our little homemade communication club. Of all the activities we provided to families, this one is still seen as the most important and the one that prepared them to be successful in life.

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Look Who’s Talking! 

I just wanted to say thank you! Without your wisdom, assistance, and assurance I don’t think we would have made it to this point in our journey. I know my daughter thoroughly enjoyed meeting you “in person” on Skype Monday evening. She walked away from that hour with many excellent thoughts to tuck away and ponder before her interviews. Thank you seems so inadequate, however I am so grateful that our paths have crossed! Thanks again for the many hours you have devoted to help my daughter succeed in this area. I truly believe God has used you in a mighty way!       ~ Kristie, KY

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