An article discussing and offering suggestions about teaching public speaking.

Hello, I am teaching English in a school here in Mexico. I have just been assigned to teach the Art of Public Speaking or Speech class. I took a speech class 35 years ago in high school, and that is only a distant memory now. The school is short on text material, in fact there is no book available on the subject. I am already two weeks into the course period. Can you help me with the methodology of preparing and making a speech? I am not really sure what the types of speech are? Informative? but what else? Please help me! Even some basic information on how and what to cover would help. The students do not even have a working knowledge of how to write a composition, so my problem is twofold, as well. 
Dennis Smith

Dear Dennis,

Thank you for your question about 'speech making'. I know this is something nearly everyone finds intimidating. One study suggested that people were more afraid of making a speech than they were of dying!

A quote I like is this one:

'The human mind is a wonderful thing - it starts working the moment you're born and only stops when you get up to speak.' (Roscoe Drummond)

Yet speaking in public is largely a matter of applied common sense. Of course, that is easy to say, and not so easy to put into practice. One way to approach a course in presentation skills is through some basic questions:

Basic questions

What is my purpose in giving this presentation? Is it to persuade my audience (to agree with my views, to buy what I am selling, to take some sort of action, etc)? Is it to inform them? Is it to entertain them? Is it to flatter them? Or to criticise them? Or to make them think? Or to demonstrate a process or instrument?

What should I include in my presentation? What is the most important information? Where shall I find it? Will it fit into the time I have available? What is the best order in which to present this information?

A really key question. Who are the people making up my audience? What kind of people are they? What are their expectations? How much do they already know about my topic? So finding out about your audience is a really important factor.

How shall I structure my presentation? How will I remember what to say? (Will I use prompt cards, or overhead slides which map the shape of what I shall say, or shall I try to memorize it?) How shall I deliver it? (My voice quality, the kind of vocabulary I use, my way of creating rapport through humour, etc.). How will I support it? ( Through examples, anecdotes, visuals, charts, etc.)

Stages of giving a presentation 

Stage one - preparation

  1. Researching the topic, the audience, the place it will be given in (the size and shape of the space, the lighting, and the seating arrangements can have a major impact). 
  2. Then making an outline plan of the presentation, to ensure that it has a logical, easily accessible structure. Finding a good opening and closing are especially important - hooking them at the outset, and reminding them of what you've said in a striking way at the end. Making sure that your main points have been given proper prominence, and re-phrased several times for maximum impact. 
  3. Then preparing any supporting materials such as OHTs, PowerPoint, charts,
    flipchart displays, etc. 
  4. Then rehearsing it, perhaps in front of a mirror, or with a friend to get feedback. The importance of preparation cannot be over-emphasized. As Mark Twain said, 'It usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good spontaneous performance.' And, oddly enough, the shorter the presentation, the more important preparation becomes. ' If I have to make a two-hour speech, I can prepare it in 10 minutes. If it is a 10-minute speech, then it can take me two hours.' (Winston Churchill)

Stage two - delivery

Actually giving the presentation 'for real'. In your case, Dennis, this will mean providing lots of opportunities for students to make presentations to the whole class. I usually start with asking them to do a 2 or 3 minute presentation on a subject of their choice. I gradually increase the length of the presentations, and begin to introduce required topics. Little and often is the rule to begin with. The main factors to concentrate on in terms of delivery are:

  1. effective use of the voice : audibility, voice quality (warm, inclusive, etc.), use of pausing, elimination of distracting vocal fillers (such as 'erm', 'you know', 'OK', 'right' etc.).
  2. use of gesture, posture, eye-contact, humour and voice quality to
    create rapport with the audience.
  3. use of space to achieve variety.
  4. handling of visual supports (eliminating distracting habits such as
    fiddling with the OHTs, putting them on upside down, etc., leaving the
    projector on when there is no slide to view, etc.)

Stage three - follow-up

This may include handling questions from the audience. It should also include critical but friendly feedback from you and from peers. One way to do this is by designing simple feedback checklists. I often give my students this easy-to-recall set of factors to bear in mind. I call it 'The 6 P's' :

  1. Preparation
  2. Purpose
  3. Presentation skills
  4. Personality
  5. Presence
  6. Passion

The first three have already been touched on above. Personality is clearly an important factor for an audience. They will listen more readily to someone with an attractive personality than to a dullard. Smiling is important! (Though not the Tony Blair rictus please!) But trying too hard to be interesting and lively can be counter-productive. The trick is to be yourself, yet simultaneously to be aware of how you are coming over. The great Shakespearean voice coach, Cicely Berry put it well: "We need to 'present' and 'be' at the same time."

Presence means quite simply that - being there, totally concentrated on the
moment. This means that your mind is completely engaged in what you are
doing. You are not distracted by thoughts about the past or the future - you are entirely there in the present moment. It means that you are not worrying about what people in the audience are thinking about you. That is irrelevant. It means that you have your 'butterflies' under control. 'Everyone has butterflies - it's the professional who gets them to fly in formation.' (Timothy Gallwey) Everything is focused on what you are doing right then. Passion. Well, that means you demonstrate your own interest in what you are presenting. If you are not interested in it, why should anyone else be?

'The Art of Public Speaking' is the subject of numerous books. Of course,  you cannot learn a set of skills from a book alone. Knowing facts is not the same as knowing how to put them to use in practice. 'It's not that I don't know what to do, it's that I don't do what I know.' (Timothy Gallwey) Nonetheless, it is useful to pick up a few useful wrinkles from some of the many books on the market. Here are just a few for you to consider:

  • David A.Peoples. 1997. Presentations Plus. John Wiley Paperback. A highly practical, easy to read book with many useful diagrams and illustrations. Sound advice on all aspects of presentations.
  • Martha Graves Cummings. 1992. Listen, Speak, Present: a step-by-step
    Presenter's Workbook. Heinle and Heinle. This is just what it says it is. It takes you methodically through all the aspects of presenting in public. There are lots of useful checklists. And it covers how to do different kinds of presentations ~ from impromptu speeches to debates.
  • Cristina Stuart. 2000. Speak for Yourself: a complete guide for effective
    communication and powerful presentations. Piatkus. Again, a highly readable account of all aspects of effective communication in public settings.
  • Jo Sprague and Douglas Stuart. 1996 (Fourth edition). The Speaker's
    . Harcourt Brace. At 457 pages, this is the most detailed and comprehensive treatment you are likely to find. Length notwithstanding, it is still quite accessible.
  • Alan Maley. 2000. The Language Teacher's Voice. Macmillan. As the title suggests, this is primarily aimed at helping teachers develop their voices. It is equally useful for students aiming to increase their vocal range.

Teaching presentation skills has always been one of my favourite courses - second only to Voice! Once students have perceived the relevance it has for their future lives, they usually make a quantum leap in motivation, effort and results! Good luck!

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