Surviving the class presentation

Illustrations by Madeleine Avirov

He stood at the front of the auditorium facing a sprinkling of grinning parents, wearing his good pants and the plaid shirt that buttons, terror nestled between his brows. He was to recite a few paragraphs about the Cherokee tribe and the natural resources the tribe used to survive. He had practiced the speech 50 times-if not more. But the words evaporated from his lips before he could mouth them. Feeling eternally damned, he only stared straight ahead, silent.

I waited the appropriate minute or two, then in a low voice, fed him his lines from the front row. After all, by now I knew the speech by heart; even the baby sitter and likely the neighbors knew the speech by heart. He spoke the lines. He sat down. It is a day he wants to forget.

This is not your father’s show and tell. Schoolchildren from kindergarten through eighth grade are expected to be frequent expert orators before their classmates, teachers and occasionally parents on everything from simple book reports to elaborate group presentations, even skits and original demonstrations of skills and techniques.

With all our educational advances in technology and learning, this emphasis on speaking is a return to ancient Greece, when oratory was one of the major studies for a student. Today, it can be a daunting prospect for a child; many adults list public speaking as one of their greatest life fears.

I know, because that boy at the front of the auditorium was mine. I won’t say who, where or when it was, because I have three sons-in third, sixth and eighth grades. But so far this school year alone they have given speeches about everything from wok cooking to the highlights of Thomas Edison’s career, the history of South American gauchos and urban police brutality. Sometimes they reported they were at ease and well-prepared; other times, they said they were frightened, reading from their note cards nervously, desperate for the teacher to call an end to their allotted time.

What is certain is that my children (and yours, their classmates and peers around the city and suburbs) likely will need to give a speech next week, next month, next year, no matter how much they fear the prospect. This spring, as the school year wanes, many of them will be giving final oral projects, making speeches from three to 12 minutes, standing before a crowd, expected to deliver. And they need to know what to do.

These tips can help any child-or even any parent-feel more comfortable speaking in public, a skill he or she can sharpen and use for many years. Being confident speaking in front of a crowd is a life lesson they can carry with them forever.

The keys to speaking before an audience and delivering an informative, entertaining speech are not too difficult to master for any school-age child:

1. Fight the fear. “…[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” Franklin D. Roosevelt used that phrase in his inaugural address in 1933, speaking about a failed economy. But to the nervous system of a young student, it can feel like the same thing.

“When you forget yourself and your fear, when you get beyond self-consciousness because your mind is thinking about what you are trying to communicate, you have become a better communicator,” Peggy Noonan writes in her book, On Speaking Well: How to Give a Speech With Style, Substance, and Clarity. This advice, from the revered speechwriter for former President Ronald Reagan, can be applied to your project. Practice is the antidote to fear.

2. Do your research. Not even Jay Leno ad-libs his monologues. He writes the jokes before hand, researching the day’s news and fact-checking the information before he even attempts a punch line. Whatever the topic of your speech, the more facts you use, the more interesting it is. You need to have something to say before you can say anything. Just as in a written report, you need to research online, in books, encyclopedias and other media to get the information. Without content, you are hemming and hawing in the front of the room. This is the classroom, not the lunchroom, and what you say counts, likely for a grade.

3. Start with a bang. Great beginnings immediately grab an audience. Just as you know whether you will like a book by the first chapter, a song after the first few bars, a movie from the opening scene, or a restaurant meal by the salad, the audience will decide to listen right away or ignore you. Ask a provocative question. Make a colorful statement. Make your first words your best words.

“Keeping your audience interested and involved-entertaining them-is essential because in order to communicate your work and its value, you need their full attention,” writes Paul Edwards, associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan in his paper, “How to Give a Talk: Changing the Culture of Academic Public Speaking.”

4. Hey, you! Involve the audience right away. Ask for a volunteer to demonstrate a task, or choose someone in the audience to answer a question unrehearsed. Ask questions that require participation, such as, “Who knows where the first ice cube was sold?” or, “Can you name all the products made from a whale?” Be sure to answer the questions because nothing is more frustrating to an audience than having the speech end with more questions than answers.

5. This is not a race. There are no prizes for speaking as fast as you can. Take your time. Breathe between sentences. Speak loud enough so the students in the back of the room can hear you. How you speak is as important as what you say. So look up from your note cards. Articulate. Each. Word. Don’t go in slow motion, but speak at a slower rate than you would with your friends at recess. Time moves slowly in front of a group. A minute may feel like an hour, but it won’t progress any faster just because you are talking like an auctioneer. So even if you want to hurry and get the five-minute speech over with, take your time to say it slowly and effectively.

6. Dole out the facts. You want to dish out the information in manageable bites and not overload your listeners with one big clump of content. Your speech needs a beginning, middle and end, just as a great meal in a restaurant has an appetizer, main course and dessert. You also want to order the information logically and give warning signs, just as there are markers on a highway signaling your exit. You don’t have to say, “Here’s the middle,” but you do want to warn your listeners, “Now that we have covered habitats and how they lived, we can move on to how the community worked.” Transitions are signposts to help the audience know where you are taking them. They don’t want to go anywhere blindfolded, so give them hints along the way.

7. Bring toys. If you are explaining the early days of space exploration, bring along a model rocket or wear an astronaut’s helmet. Thoughtfully prepare some visual backup to your presentation, whether it is a poster or handouts. You may not be adept at PowerPoint, but you can download photographs from the Internet that perfectly illustrate your speech.

Have some props to support your talk, but don’t bring so many they become distracting. If you hand out materials to everyone, or pass around a photograph or model, expect people to pay attention to that and not to you. So limit your props to the beginning or end of your speech. You don’t want to be like a contestant on “Let’s Make a Deal” with so many gadgets and gizmos to show that no one hears you.

Also, remember that involving many senses makes what you say more memorable. Is there a song you can play for your audience? Can they sample a tea or smell a perfume? Vary your stance and move from the podium to the center of the room, to the side of the room-but don’t move so much you seem like a UFO trying to land.

8. Keep it simple. “Your style should never be taller than you are,” Noonan writes in her book. In other words, talk in a clear and simple style. Don’t use $10 words when $1 words will suffice. Don’t talk down to your audience and cop an attitude of a know-it-all. You want to share what you learned, not gloat. Use metaphors and catchy phrases, but don’t be too cute. Act as if you are telling your best friend a story, or relating to your mom or dad something you learned. Be yourself.

9. Make ’em laugh. Is it appropriate to tell a joke that relates to your topic? If you are talking about a sensitive issue such as war or disease, it would be wrong to try to be funny. But if you are talking about the life of an actor or athlete, maybe you can tell a joke. Make sure your joke makes sense and it fits in with the rest of your speech. Don’t just tack on a joke in a speech for geography class because it was funny. Make sure it is relevant and that it doesn’t waste anyone’s time.

10. Think happy thoughts. The morning of your presentation, close your eyes and imagine it going very well. Don’t stress about flubbing your lines or freezing up. Feel confident because you have researched thoroughly, written a good speech and practiced it several times with all the props. You don’t worry if you will fall off your bike every time you get on it to ride to a friend’s house. You just ride. So breathe deep, feel good and be positive. If you are negative or dreading the talk, that will come off in the way you speak and the way you carry yourself. Relax, go do it and imagine how well it will be received. No one wants you to freeze, goof up or fail. Everyone, from your classmates and teacher to your parent, is rooting for you. So step up to the podium and do your best.

Books on talks Basic Public Speaking, by Douglas Parker, XLibris, 2001, $21.99. Though self-published, this book is available on The Quick& Easy Way to Effective Speaking, by Dale Carnegie, Pocket Books, 1990, $7.50. A classic, easy read.

Help on the Web Dozens of Web sites are devoted to the art of public speaking and offer research tips, resources and links to sites such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and the Internet Public Library. A few have archives of great speeches that can serve as models for an eloquent, persuasive and informative speech. Here are a few of the better sites that can help a student gild a speech:

School for Champions Aimed at students, this site has resources and tips from authors. The “automatic speech writer” template helps students organize a speech.

Advanced Public Speaking Institute Articles and links on outlining, research and other tools.

Virtual Presentation Assistant Great tool for students who want to make a memorable presentation. Solid public speaking information and links to dozens of sites on speaking and good resources for writing speeches.

Toastmasters International This site gives tips, but is heavy on recruiting members to the organization aimed at practicing speech-giving and overcoming fear of public speaking. Hone your PowerPoint skills and go multimedia.

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