As someone who has coached our school’s Academic Decathlon team for over 10 years, I’ve long understood the value of public speaking for students. Our team members have gained poise and confidence from preparing for the speech portion of the competition, and impromptu speeches were always a standout favorite activity for them.
Despite the benefits, I tended to avoid assigning public speaking in my English classes. It was hard to find time in an already crammed curriculum, and being an introvert myself, I was especially sensitive to the fear some students have of getting up in front of their peers. I didn’t relish the idea of forcing them to do something that had been so terrifying for me—but I could work to give them a safe space to try something they were afraid of.
So in the midst of a particularly raucous Academic Decathlon impromptu speech practice, I decided that this might be a great activity for letting my students dip their toes in the public speaking pool.
Adapting Impromptu Speeches for the Classroom
When I found myself with an extra 15 minutes at the end of my 10th grade class, I told my students to put away To Kill a Mockingbird and turn to a fresh page in their notebooks. On the page, I had them write following acronym vertically down the page, not skipping any lines: MEEET. I then went on to explain what each word stood for:
I explained the basic premise of an impromptu speech to my students: They would get a few short minutes to prepare a speech on a random topic and then they’d have the opportunity to give the speech, if they wished. Most of them looked at me dubiously as I pulled out the silver box of practice impromptu speech topics from Academic Decathlon, but they sat with their pencils at the ready.
I gave them a quick demonstration of how the outline worked. The topic I pulled out of the box was: “Is the internet bad for society?” I did a “think-aloud,” walking the students through my thought process as I decided what to say. My outline looked like this:
M: Like any tool, the internet is only as good or bad as the person who employs it.
E: Destructive/dangerous uses of internet: cyberbullying, spread of false info.
E: Productive uses of internet: communication, collaboration, Wikipedia/Twitter.
E: Frankenstein: responsibility of humanity when it comes to science.
T: We have a responsibility to be informed and thoughtful when it comes to any tool—especially one as powerful as the internet.
It’s important to show students that they’re just doing a quick outline of their ideas here—not writing the whole speech. The ideas are just sketched out, giving them a framework of ideas on which to build their argument. It’s a messy process, and that’s not just OK but necessary.
After walking them through my brainstorming and outlining process, I pulled three impromptu cards from the box and allowed a student to choose one for the whole class to outline. Students got two minutes to silently write their outline in their notebooks, and then I opened up the floor for volunteers who would like to get up and deliver their quickly prepared speeches.
When I first did this, there were only a few takers—the confident students who are the first to raise their hands and their voices in almost any class discussion. But the other students saw how low-stakes giving a speech was—there are no grades or critical feedback involved, only applause—and over time more and more of them have taken the plunge.
Advantage of This Exercise
One of the best things about this activity is that the whole class is engaged in the outlining process, so everyone thinks about an argument they could make, even if they don’t plan to deliver it publicly.
The voluntary nature of the speeches, in addition to their brevity, slowly builds students’ confidence and makes it easier for them to take the risk of getting up in front of the class. It becomes quickly apparent how much all of my students—not just the outspoken ones—relish the opportunity to express their ideas to their peers. It’s one of the most requested activities in my class.
I have some variations on the activity to help with introverts. Occasionally, after we’ve done the outlines, I’ll have students pair up and give their speeches to each other, and then, as we progress, we’ll move to small groups and have each group choose one person to present to the class. The activity can be shortened or lengthened, depending on time available, and scaffolded to build on students’ confidence and skills.
An unintended consequence of this activity became apparent as we were working on an argument essay. I was trying to explain how conclusions work, and after I had approached it from many different angles, a student raised his hand and said, “It’s just like a takeaway, right?” I realized that I had been inadvertently teaching organization while we were practicing the speeches.