Public Speaking in Schools and at Home – A message for teachers and parents

Young children sitting in classroom

As schools all over the world have been closed for months and we are now entering the school summer holidays in the UK, I’m reminded once again of what I believe is a dire need for public speaking to be taught both in schools and at home.

The benefits of learning to speak confidently in public at the youngest possible age can pay huge dividends across all areas of our lives as we get older:

It can be a great self-esteem booster

Help us to influence and persuade others more effectively

Help us to think critically and creatively

Help us make new social connections

Help us to significantly enhance our personal relationships

Help us to just be more comfortable with people

Help us to stand up to bullies – they are in the workplace too!

Public speaking can help us to inspire people and even change the world.

The world really does open up to us when we know how to get our point across and speak with impact.

I attend a lot of conferences and seminars and each time I do I’m amazed when it comes to the Q&A at the end just how few questions there always are and that it’s always the same people asking the questions.

Regardless of  age, position or experience most people really don’t like speaking in public, even if it’s to ask a burning question. Interestingly though, as soon as everyone breaks for coffee or the conference is over you always find that suddenly there are hundreds of questions flying around the room.

It’s not a new phenomenon, in fact, it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years and is unlikely to change much in the future unless and until we add public speaking skills to our school curriculum.

I’m pretty confident that most people reading this article will recall their own school days when sitting in the classroom the teacher asked a question and very few of us put our hands up to answer it.

Was it really the case that so many students didn’t know the answer?

Of course not, many of us did.

Sadly, most of us were  simply scared to raise our hands and so we left it to the usual one or two in the class to claim another gold star.

When we realized we actually did know the answer we kicked ourselves all the way home. That’s how it was when I was at school and as far as I can see not much has changed today.

For the most part it hasn’t really seemed to have mattered too much or done irreparable harm largely because historically the written word has been the primary currency of education in schools. Throughout the ages students have been taught to read, remember and repeat and the demonstration of learning has mostly been done through the written word. In the past, in many cases, success at school and at work has mostly required fluency with the written word.

Whilst that still is and will always remain vitally important we all know it isn’t enough. Our inablity to speak with confidence, sincerity and passion does little to help us to connect with each other in such a disconnected world.

The world has changed

We live in an age when students and employees are also judged on how well they communicate and present themselves at work and in public. Despite that reality many students leave school or university today with impressive qualifications yet when it comes to the spoken word a great number find themselves struggling to express themselves clearly and confidently.

When the first moment at work arrives that they are asked to give a presentation to their colleagues or bosses the feeling of dread and panic can be overwhelming for so many.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Life is a 24 hour, 365 day a year conversation. When we are not talking to colleagues, customers, or our boss we are speaking with our families, friends and strangers every single day. When we are not speaking directly with someone else the dialogue still continues yet it’s an internal one with ourselves. Even when we are asleep we are still talking, we just so happen to call it something else; dreaming.

With that in mind, together with the fact that much of our success, happiness and even peace of mind at both work and home comes through our ability to engage and connect with others through the spoken word I really believe the answer lays in our children being ‘heard as well as seen’. Many schools do very little to teach our children to be heard and think its sufficient to simply grade them on class participation.

That is not good enough, we need to help them to develop the confidence and skills to value their voice and want to be heard.

Children who are shy, sensitive or simply reticent for whatever reason need to be taught how to push through their fears so they can make their voices heard when they have something to say. I believe this is a skill of paramount importance to equip them to leave school and face the world with confidence and belief in themselves.

Let’s face it communication on its own is a very potent medicine as what we say and how we say it can hurt or heal, harness or hinder.

At Mindful Presenter we believe that speech is one of the most powerful tools we each have. 

When we equip our young people with the confidence and skill to speak in public they can grow to do some incredible things. They can inspire change and unite people in a common cause or simply succeed in connecting with others more effectively.

We need to teach them to manage their nerves and to help them to speak with passion, clarity and impact. We need to show them how to command an audience, keep their attention and how to answer questions. Just imagine what the world would look like if our children were taught how to tell stories, to give and receive feedback and to listen.

To succeed in the workplace today we are increasingly called on to communicate with confidence and to articulate information in a clear and coherent way to peers and colleagues.

To succeed in life and work we need to be able to connect with people and that means not being afraid to speak in public as so many of us were taught to be as children and still carry the burden today.

A message for parents – Children need to be heard as well as seen,  find a way to help them

Encouraging our schools to teach our children how to find their voice and speak in public is critical but on it’s own is not enough. If you are a parent please don’t just wait for that to happen. You have a major role to play too, and the mission starts with you. Why not take the opportunity to help your child to find their voice during this challenging time.

– The first challenge of course is to make the very idea of public speaking fun and to remove the pressure so many adults feel themselves at the very thought of speaking in public.  With that in mind I’d suggest that when discussing the topic with your child not to mention the term public speaking. Often it’s helpful to reframe it to something that may be more friendly, helpful and even exciting to them.

Perhaps, speaking with confidence, self-expression, being heard, how to stand out, sharing your voice, etc.

– Spend some time getting them to read stories and poems to you and make up their own.  As they do so gradually get them to share some of their stories and poems openly to close relatives and friends who you know will encourage and support them too. There are some really helpful articles online, which although whilst focused primarily on singing offer some fabulous advice to help children develop their voices.

– Set them a fun but personal challenge of speaking standing up in front of just you talking in as much detail as they can about something important to them or that they care about or simply like. It could be a hobby, interest, sport, book, film, friend, food, anything – ask him/her to just be themselves and speak openly and honestly about it.

– Encourage and help them to stretch their voice by reading pages from their favourite book. Start by reading in a happy and excited voice, a loud voice, quiet voice and even a funny voice.

– Show them how to play with the pace of their voice and how to speak faster, slower and pause for a moment after each sentence.

– Teach them how to breathe properly before they speak.

– Find strange objects around the house and ask them to make up stories about what they think it is and what it’s used for.

– If you have the opportunity, do the exercise above but ask their permission to capture them speaking by video on your phone, iPad, etc, assuring them that no one else will see it and that you will delete it if  they want you to. Once you’ve recorded them, sit with your child and play the video back. Ask them to focus exclusively on looking for three things they likes about the way they speak. ( Most people, including most adults we work with find that a challenge). Don’t give up though, encourage them to find something, even if it’s one or two things. Then share everything you like about the way they speak. Be honest with them but only be positive by focusing on the things you genuinely like. At this stage don’t mention any problems, opportunities or issues.

– Teach your child the power of making eye contact by the two of you discussing something he/she is interested in, encouraging both of you to make as much eye contact as possible. Then perhaps, show them the impact of what happens when you don’t make eye contact when you are speaking. You break eye contact with him/her and ask them how it feels and then switch around.

– You can take eye contact even further by placing a few chairs around them with post it notes on the top of each one with eyes drawn on them and ask your child to talk about something he/she likes while making sure they make eye contact with each of the post it’s.  Ask them to imagine having a conversation with the post it notes and to see them as their friends.

– If your child feels nervous or anxious get them to choose a superhero. If he/she has one that they like already, perfect, if not ask them to select somebody they could like or relate to. Ask them to stand, breath, think like and look like their superhero as they read a few paragraphs from their favourite book.

– Give them interesting and fun topics to prepare a 3 minute speech on and give them the gift of practicing speaking openly and giving them feedback. Topics could include things like:

If he/she were the head of their school what 3 things would they change immediately and why?

If he/she could do anything in the world where there were no obstacles at all, what would they do?

– Find a strange object in the house that your child won’t be familiar with. Ask them to imagine that he/she is a world famous archaeologist  who has just returned from a major dig. Ask them to imagine that they have found this strange item that no one has ever seen before. Ask them to use their imagination and create a use for it and then stand and share their amazing find. (this one may be more of a challenge but the idea is to make it fun and interesting as well as a challenge). Give your child lots of good feedback every time he/she speaks.

– Do some fun vocal exercises with them, there are plenty on YouTube you can have some fun with.

– Ask them to write down everything that worries them, makes them anxious or fearful in any way about the idea of speaking in groups and then encourage your child to reframe his/her thinking.

Important note

Many adults enter the workplace highly skilled at ‘waiting to speak’; in other words, their listening skills are very poor. Teach your child how to actively listen too. Learning how to speak with confidence and impact won’t be of any use to them at all unless they can listen equally well.

When they do return to school do take a few minutes each day to ask your child about their day at school and encourage them to share as much as they can and would like to.

Spend as much time with them as you can helping them to find, value and develop their voice.

Here’s one of my favourite YouTube videos you can have some real fun with:

 “ Teaching in the independent sector for 10 years has enabled me to see how valuable public speaking is.  Being responsible for educating boys from 4 years to 13 years means that we have a duty not only to educate but to help them grow into young men.  We encourage them to be confident to express their knowledge and opinions through spoken language.  Public Speaking gives them the opportunity to speak out and express themselves eloquently, which many children and adults find difficult to do today.  For me, it is a vital part of growing up and a most valuable skill to have.”

Emma Edwards

Director of Studies & Head of Learning Support

Cumnor House

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Image: Courtesy of istock.com

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