Taking your public speaking skills to the next level.
Everybody loves a cool, calm and confident public speaker—they make teachers drool and parents quiver with pride. But the prospect of giving a speech fills a lot of us with paralyzing fear. Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that, according to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking, while death was number two: “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Hilarious—but definitely not true. How can you help your child develop this critical life skill and become fearless on the stage? We ask some confident speakers in Beijing about their top tips when it comes to speaking to an audience
Tips on public speaking
So what even makes a good speech? One thing that comes up again and again with professionals is that the best speeches are like conversations. The best speakers tell their speeches like stories, as if they were talking to a friend. Gareth Evans, IB teacher at Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS Beijing), explains that his favorite speaker, Barack Obama, does just that. “One of the things that’s really impressive about him is that so much of the time, even when you know it’s a prepared speech, it doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like he’s making it up as he goes along.” A great speech should be just as interesting and casual as a conversation with a friend—just loaded with way more facts and analysis.
Confidence is also incredibly important—because confidence is enticing. Hedvig Berry Wibskov, public speaking enthusiast and mother of four, explains that “confidence is usually the factor that strengthens our voice and grabs an audience’s attention.” If someone comes on stage appearing cool, calm and confident, the audience can relax and focus on the actual speech. It’s a lot easier to enjoy a presentation when the speaker doesn’t appear like he or she is about to have a nervous breakdown.
Variation is another characteristic of a good speech. You want your audience to feel like they are watching an episode of Game of Thrones—have them at the edge of their seat, wondering which counterargument you’re going to slaughter next. Be funny one second, serious the next. Talk loudly and then start to whisper. Get your point across with the help of poetry, statistics, jokes and anecdotes. Anything that captivates your audience’s attention is perfect. It’s one thing to keep your audience hooked with a killer opening. Holding that interest is a whole lot harder.
Make dramatic pauses. Pauses give your audience time to absorb what you’ve said. It can also be used to accentuate the importance of what is being said. If making a dramatic pause feels awkward, try the pause and walk technique. Evans often recommends this very technique to his students. After you have finished making a point, walk slowly a couple of steps across the stage. This will force you to pause and give your audience time to marvel at the intellectual wonders you’ve just shared with them (and if you’re not that good, they’ll have time to figure out what the heck you’re saying).
When deciding how loud or fast to speak, Evans has another tip. “If you want to know whether you are loud enough or slow enough, the best rule is usually, “Do I sound in my head like I am really loud and really slow?” If you do, then it is probably about the right pace, because you always sound louder in your own head.” Speaking loudly, slowly and omitting all filler words is difficult. But if you record or film yourself, you can re-watch your performance to see whether you’re going too fast or slow. If you record yourself and notice how all the “likes” and “ums” annoy you, it’s likely you’ll work harder to stop using them.
What parents can do
Of course your child will learn about public speaking in school—but parents can still help out. A love for the stage can be nurtured in the early years of a child’s life, so there are lots of things parents can do.
If parents want to raise little Barack Obamas, they’ve got to be Barack Obama. Be a good role model; your children pick up a lot of their habits from you. “Make a toast at every party,” suggests Wibskov. “Request a spot with your child’s school parent-teacher association, make a speech at your friends’ wedding or birthday or even at Sunday night dinner. Your children will see this example and understand this is something doable.”
The fear of public speaking usually comes from a fear of strangers. Parents can help with this by teaching children to approach strangers and make small talk (under supervision, of course). Wibskov finds it important for children to introduce themselves to new people, shake their hands, say their name and answer questions, even with adults. Though this seems like a small thing, it could help your child’s public speaking skills in the long run.
Another good way to improve your child’s public speaking skills is to break down the fear of embarrassment. “We sing and dance with our children at every opportunity, including silly dancing around the house. This helps to overcome our inhibitions,” explains Wibskov. “In fact, the sillier the dancing, the better!” She explains that at a recent birthday party, she and her daughter belted out “Happy Birthday” in Danish in front of everyone. Getting comfortable with making a fool of yourself and finding it funny, rather than embarrassing, is a great way to make sure your kid doesn’t get stage fright.
It’s also recommended that you send your kids to extracurricular classes where they’ll practice being on stage. While the Beijing Playhouse does offer theater camps for children (see our cover story on p. 22 for more details), it doesn’t have to just be dramatic training. Everything from football to ballet has teachable skills that can be used for public speaking. If a child is used to being the center of attention, they’ll come to know it and hopefully savor it by the time they have to do presentations at school.
Mistakes parents make
There are some things parents should watch out for though, if you want to make sure you encourage your child’s public speaking prowess rather than hinder it.
The first mistake a parent can make is to force their child to go up on stage. A traumatizing and humiliating experience in front of a crowd might make your child scared of getting up on stage for years to come. “If they are shy, if they lack the confidence, you’ve got to ease them into it slowly,” explains Evans. In his classes, Evans makes sure to start shy students off in pairs and then small groups. Once they are confident enough to do that, he might put the student in front of a larger audience.
Be careful not to reflect your fears onto the child. If your kids have just been on stage, make sure to shower them with praise—don’t point out that they should have been nervous. Wibskov explains that when her children have finished a performance, she’ll never say “Wow, you did it! I can’t believe you got up in front of all those people!” Don’t exaggerate how scary public speaking is. You don’t need your child to begin to think of public speaking as scary if they don’t already.
Real life skills
Everyone deserves to master public speaking because if you have the tools to deliver an amazing speech, you have the ability to change things—both big and small. After all, words are all a lone individual really has to make a difference in the world. So though it might not seem like much, your child’s ability to deliver an awe-inspiring speech is not just vital for their future, it’s integral for the development of society. Idealism aside, being able to make a darn good speech is also a lot of fun and really comes in handy when you’ve got to make an off-the-cuff toast at a wedding.
Cover photo: Johannes Jansson/norden.org [CC BY 2.5 dk (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/dk/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
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