“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” —Jerry Seinfeld
Public speaking is a legitimate fear for many people. I’m not afraid of public speaking, but I am afraid of snakes. If someone forced me into a room with snakes to pass a course, I would be terrified, and I would fail. This is how some students feel about public speaking.
Also, consider that students don’t want to feel judged. They don’t want to appear dumb, weak, or afraid in front of their classmates. Requiring students to speak in front of each other is asking a lot.
As an English and theater teacher for more than 13 years, I’ve helped many students become more confident with public speaking. I’ve also seen other teachers struggle with helping students grow in their confidence. Often, the issue is that they’re either not scaffolding the public speaking experience for the student (they’re just throwing the student alone in front of the classroom) or they’re scaffolding the experience, but they’re making the steps too big or rushing the process. Here I’ll explain the techniques I use in my high school English and theater classrooms that I’ve had success with over the years.
First, before we can even begin to expect students to speak publicly, we must first build a strong classroom community. The feeling of safety and community is vital because students need to feel safe and supported before they’ll take risks. You need to build the foundation for a strong community in your classroom before beginning the next steps.
How you scaffold the public speaking experience will make all the difference. Students may need to do these exercises more than once, and it isn’t a linear process. This is where the artistry of teaching comes in, as well as the community-building you’ve worked on.
Start with group presentations from the students’ desks. These can be fairly large groups to start (four to six students). The projects don’t have to be big, formal assignments. In fact, this works great with a quick check-in of a discussion.
In the beginning, don’t require everyone to speak. That’s right—the first step doesn’t even include speaking. Having everyone looking at them (even in a group) is a first baby step for some students.
For the next step, do the same as above but now in front of the room. Being in front of the room is intimidating, and students will feel safer if they’re in a group and don’t have to speak yet.
You may want to have the group present a poster, with the person who doesn’t yet feel comfortable speaking holding it up. This provides a sense of security. Also, having a podium between the students and the audience makes a big difference in comfort level.
Repeat the above steps, but slowly make the groups smaller and/or have them speak a little bit more each time. Students can also do these steps from their desks first and then move up to standing in front of the class. You’ll have to figure out with your students which areas to change and how quickly—again, the artistry of teaching.
Factors in Students’ Success
Over the course of the year, make sure you plan out these experiences and think about where each individual student is in their journey to public speaking confidence. This will change as the year goes on, and not always in a straight line. Students will have other experiences outside of your classroom that will either build or damage their progress. They might have a great experience in another classroom or an after-school activity that propels them forward, or you may have to take a step backward with a student because they’ve had a negative experience somewhere else. It’s vital to regularly check in with your students. This can be a quick conversation, a secret hand signal that says how they are doing that day, or a poll.
Think about learning how to drive a car. People most likely don’t start out driving on the highways. New drivers work on smaller side streets or in parking lots until they feel comfortable enough and ready to move on to something more challenging and intimidating. Even then, the next step may not be the highway.
Keep these tips in mind when thinking about how to create important, purposeful, and thoughtful experiences with public speaking. Taking these smaller steps will be an investment that will set your students up for success in the long term.