Making Public Speaking Less Scary for Teens

If it's true that many people fear public speaking more than death, then Secondary English teachers have to be the warriors on the front lines against that fear. It's our job to not just assign a speech when the standards demand it, but to teach students HOW to prepare and give one with grace.

So, how exactly do we help a wide range of students choose bravery over fear?

As a speech nerd aficionado teaching a general English class, I love getting to the root of student problems and making them more comfortable presenting. It’s one way to make a visible, long-lasting impact on students, and the time we spend on it is always worthwhile.

FREE: Student Survey & Action Plan
The first step is to find out what YOUR class may already know and do, and to crack open their honesty.

Without a valid survey or pre-assessment, you may not get to uncover who will be fine and who is on the verge of a breakdown. (Trust me - two minutes of survey time is worth the time saved later dealing with drama!)

Pass out this FREE student survey to see where your class is starting from; then use the action plan on the back to make individualized, student-led action plans in pursuit of growth!

Okay, now what?
Here are of my best tips to help a mixed-ability class give speeches in an introductory OR intermediate way. Pick and choose what strategies they need!

1. Play with audience size
The most common student fear is the stereotypical speech in front of THE ENTIRE CLASS. But let's challenge that assumption - do we really need that to happen?

If you can swing it, try to either:

  • Split the class in half, with two simultaneous speeches happening (that you can oversee and grade from the back)
  • Divide students into small groups! Why not make tables, and let one student stand and present to just his or her group? (You might not need to hear every word of every speaker to still assess the objectives on your rubric!)

Another advantage to groupings is that you can differentiate academically or socially, such as separating a bully from being in his prey’s audience.

2. Practice in class
Truth: Students either don't practice at home OR don't do it enough, and it's not just out of laziness: many students genuinely think they don't NEED to. They actually believe that they can "wing it" and be fine... although we teachers know that practice really does pay off!

For at least the FIRST speech of the year, I like to make students practice in this in-class sequence (that takes one class period or less):
  • Out loud, seated, reading from a script or cards, all simultaneously. (It's a good kind of noisy!)
  • Standing up at his or her desk, looking at a script
  • Standing and talking to the wall, trying to keep eyes lifted (or at least the script at eye level)
  • Presenting to a chosen peer (or more)

This sequence usually shows students the importance of practice, as well as humble them about what was hard and what additional practice they should do before the real one.

3. Develop a growth mindset
There's no reason why students need to make EVERY speech perfect in EVERY way, right?

If you know you will assess a certain number of presentations or speeches per year, then why not just focus on making each speech better than the last one?

This growth mindset can work wonders with speaking in particular, mainly because it can take the pressure off... even if it's the self-imposed kind, and not caused by the teacher.

One way to develop a growth mindset with speaking is to borrow my FREE growth charts, picking and choosing the layout that works well for you. Make students track how their vocals, posture, and content went, while reflecting on what to do differently in the future.

4. Pre-assess shy students
I don't know about you, but I've had students with TRUE anxiety who can't stand up in front of peers without bursting into tears, freezing on the spot, and/or trying to flee the room.

When this happens, I arrange a time (like study hall) to let the student give his or her speech to me individually, with little or no audience; then, he or she has to give it again in front of the regular class of peers... but at least my grading has already happened, so the pressure is off. What they don't know is that I will grade both speeches and keep whichever grades are better. ;)

5. Give awards (for the little things)
Maybe the speech wasn't great, but their visual aid sure was! Use these awards to help recognize the parts that students did do well so that they are more motivated to improve in other areas next time.

6. Keep the audience busy
Pro tip: For every speech I assign, the audience is taking notes in some form - either on the content of the speech or the speaker’s positive and negative traits. As a result, the audience is more engaged, AND the speaker feels less of the sensation that all eyes are on him/her.

7. Bring in other experts
My students joke that I have some legit “wisdom drops” (a.k.a. lessons) on the “how” of public speaking… BUT, if I only use MY voice, then they're going to tune me out eventually.

If you don't have the time or resources to bring in a guest speaker, then use the guided notes in my Intro to Speaking with TED Talks lessons to allow videos of real speakers to preach about the ins and outs of good talks!

8. Let students get in character
Students are WAY less afraid of public speaking if they either get to 1) do dramatic read-alouds of famous speeches, OR 2) they get to imitate a real life scenario, like an awards acceptance speech. These two projects are my best of the year, simply because even my more timid stuents perform a million times better if it's not their words and/or not their persona being judged.

Check out my Public Speaking Bundle for a bigger list of all my speaking activities! 

A Final Thought
Not all students will ENJOY speaking, and that's okay. But you have an irreplaceable power in students’ lives: making a visible change that lasts well into their careers, and removing a phobia’s power over their lives.

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