The Art of Public Speaking

Classes and tips to tackle kids' fear of public speaking

Public speaking at any age can be intimidating. So for kids who are shy or unsure of themselves, delivering a book report or debating a hot topic in front of their classmates is a tall order. “Students start at ground zero. They most likely have no experience with public speaking and have problems just introducing themselves,” says Jim Hunt, a board member of New Jersey Orators, a nonprofit public-speaking program for kids 7 to 18. 

With the new school year just a month away, now’s a good time for students to brush up on the basics or enroll in a public-speaking or drama class, so they’ll be ready to face the class with confidence.

The importance of oration

Hunt believes it’s crucial to instill public-speaking skills in students as early as possible, so they’ll have plenty of time to practice before they’re old enough to interview for college or a summer job. 

“Most students have no clue how to speak in interviews, when you have 30 seconds to impress an employer,” he explains. “If you start young, you avoid pitfalls,” such as the inability to verbalize thoughts clearly or to connect through eye contact and positive body language. 

“When you get into the work force, you have to be able to communicate with people,” continues Charles Conway, director of education and community engagement at Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company, which integrates public-speaking fundamentals into its acting classes for kids 8 to 18. “Life is a group project, so we encourage students to discover their individual talents and strengths, work with each other, and through this their confidence grows.”

Next page: the role of debate & drama in public speaking; plus, a list of local public speaking/drama classes


Debate the issue

The debate format remains the gold standard in which to train public speakers. At Philly’s After School Activities Partnerships, students in grades 5 to 12 are taught the art of debating, then take part in formal and informal team debates. 

To help participants develop their oral and presentation skills, teachers videotape the kids in action. “A lot of times, you don’t realize that you may be rocking back and forth or playing with your sweater when you’re speaking in front of others,” explains debate and drama manager Sara Morningstar. Afterward, the students watch the recording and self-critique their content and presentation. Viewing themselves as others see them helps them understand how they come across — and, ideally, show them any verbal or physical mannerisms they may want to change or correct.

Presentation is also key to the New Jersey Orators method. Students in 24 chapters throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania hone an argument about a subject in a category of their own choosing, which culminates in a judged oration. Students are scored individually and by category on elements such as self-control, subject knowledge, audience engagement and eye contact. 

Along with audience applause, says Hunt, students are rewarded immediately with “incentives” like medals. Higher grades and scholarships often follow. “We get calls from parents and teachers who can’t believe a child’s improvement,” he says.

The drama of public speaking

Past the podium, drama classes also instill principles of oration in kids. These classes can improve diction and teach leadership and teamwork in what Conway calls “a collaborative approach. 

“If you are cast as Romeo, you have to learn how to connect to your Juliet, so the focus is on creating an atmosphere where students can rely on each other,” he explains. By learning to be better speakers, students in turn learn to be better listeners and communicators. If they can do that, Conway says, the chances of reaching an audience improve — and with it, so does their self-confidence.

The goal, says Hunt, is to infuse kids “with the ability to explain what they are doing and how they do it, something a lot of their peers are just not able to do.”

And what of his advice to students looking to strengthen their public speaking skills? “Take your time, breathe slowly and think before you speak. Work hard, but most of all have fun with it.” 

Temple University students Taylor Gillen Carson and Aish Menon are MetroKids interns.

Categories: Classes, Education Features