It is the most dreaded task in the school calendar, whether it is an oral presentation, class discussion or packaged into a group assignment: public speaking.
Schools are keen to include public speaking and presentations in curriculum to ensure that students graduate with good verbal communication skills. Unfortunately, even for the seemingly most confident person, public speaking can be terrifying. In fact, more people fear public speaking than dying. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked: ‘If you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy’.
So, if you freeze up with cue cards in hand, you’re not alone.
You Can Do It
Let’s debunk a couple of myths, shall we?
You don’t have to be a naturally gifted conversationalist to get through public speaking; just as many social, extroverted people struggle with public speaking as shy or introverted types. In a similar vein, just because someone appears confident or an experienced public speaker, it does not mean they are not nervous underneath. Think about your teachers, youth leaders or sports coaches … there’s a good chance that many of them are pushing through a fear of speaking in public.
Moses was not a confident public speaker, either. He begged God to send someone else to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, saying, ‘I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue’ (Exodus 4:10). But God was not having a bar of it. He encouraged Moses, saying he would always be with him when he spoke and would give him the words to say.
Moses was still not convinced, but with his brother Aaron, he was able to lead Israel to freedom—despite being a nervous public speaker. So, take heart. By preparing well and playing to your strengths, you can make it through an oral presentation.
Make Your Words Count
Regardless of whether you call in sick, schedule an appointment over the class period or physically faint as you walk to the front of the classroom, the reality is there is little chance of escaping that dreaded presentation.
There are ways to make it easier and give yourself the best chance of bringing home a great grade as well.
First, make sure you have a good content base. The average person says approximately 100–150 words per minute. If you’ve only written 500 words and have little to no understanding of the topic, you will struggle to stretch that out into an eight-minute presentation. Choose a topic or sub-topic which you know well or are most interested in learning about, and know your own abilities. If you have a good memory, then memorise your speech. Make sure that you understand what you are saying—especially if you are presenting in a foreign language—in case you lose track at any point. If you are better with improvising and thinking on the spot, learn your topic inside out, know your main points and trust your ability to ad-lib.
Once you have written your presentation, don’t just read it over and over in your head. If you have someone available to listen, read aloud to a parent, sibling or friend and practise making eye contact (an alternative method is to record yourself speaking, and listen to your speech on an audio file). Start off with your whole speech written down, then gradually begin practising with cue cards and adapt them as required until you can present.
On the day, make sure you have a water bottle nearby to take a sip if you feel anxious. Public speaking causes a sense of dryness in the mouth, so water is a must-have. Most schools will allow you to present with notes on paper or cue cards. Even if you feel positive that you have memorised your speech to perfection, you never know what might happen when you step in front of the class and the panic sets in. Resist the urge to print out or copy your entire speech; instead, write down key sentences or dot points of the most important information or sections you often forget. Make sure the font is large and easily read.
Remember, your speech does not have to change the world; it just needs to be eight minutes long, cover the selection criteria and include at least four to eight quick glances towards the class.
Say It Right
Here are some public speaking tips you may not have heard from your teacher…
Breathe. Obvious, but it is easy to forget. Don’t ramble or speed through your sentences. Pause for a breath after each sentence—you will speak more clearly and make a good impression. What’s more, every time you take a breath, that’s more time you’re not speaking. It’s a win-win!
Stop. If you lose your place, then regroup and continue.
Eyebrow Contact. If you struggle with eye contact, try looking just above the eyes. Don’t only make eye contact with your friends or teacher, look around the room—but not out the window.
Hold your own hand. If your hands are shaking, hold them together (with your cards) to steady the nerves. If your legs are shaking, gently shift your weight from foot to foot.
Control your situation. Sometimes teachers will create a random order to speak, but other times you can volunteer to speak earlier. This is the hardest tip, but presenting early means you have less time to stew over your nerves and compare your presentation with everybody else’s.
Once you are through your own speech and have given yourself a big pat on the back, think about how you can be a good audience member for other nervous classmates. If they make eye contact with you, then smile and be attentive. It can be a huge help to see a friendly face in the audience.