When working with foreign students who are preparing for college or a career, it makes good sense to help them gain public speaking skills.
This work needn’t be restricted to improving the content of what they say, as audiences often attest that the success of a speech is dependent equally on content and style. Capturing such a confident style of speaking isn’t at all easy, and our students need guidance and practice to reach this level. Here are some tips for helping your students to become more confident, prepare properly, and troubleshoot their own shortcomings even before they stand up to give their presentation.
Setting Aside Shyness and Gaining Confidence
One of the most rewarding moments in my whole teaching career was watching a painfully shy Egyptian woman stand up and give a powerful, passionate speech. I’m not sure I can even remember what the speech was about, but her confidence was simply inspiring, and reminded me that I should never doubt my students’ capacity to grow, learn, and surprise the heck out of me.
10 Ideas for Teaching ESL Presentation Skills
Practice Is the Answer
If you’re a regular reader of my busyteacher.org contributions, you’ll know I have a couple of hobby horses, and practice is one of these. Nothing worthwhile ever happened without lots of preparation, and for public speaking, there’s no substitute for having already delivered the speech a dozen times (albeit privately, or with friends) before the Big Day comes.
Work on Fluency
Alongside special classes on presentation skills throughout the semester, I include a major focus on fluency in all of my classes. I require students to speak in full sentences, call on individuals to provide answers, and ensure that every student has spoken in front of their classmates. The more my students are challenged by these situations, the less worrying their first big presentations will become.
This is also something to work on throughout the semester. In big classrooms, I tend to exaggerate the difficulties I’m having in hearing someone speak, so that they have to raise and project their voice. We discuss methods of utilizing the diaphragm muscles, as a singer would, to focus and project the sound, and we make extensive use of recordings, as we’ll see.
Take It Easy
Students get nervous, and nervous people rush what they’re doing. The skill of realizing that your speech has suddenly accelerated, or worse that you’re reading your material as quickly as possible and without attending to structure and meaning, is invaluable, and is only gained through experience. This is one of the feedback areas I focus on after presentations, but again, using recordings and rehearsing rigorously will eliminate most of these problems before they fully arise.
Make ‘Em Laugh!
Don’t be afraid to be funny. Many of our students come from societies where most of the formal presentations they’ve seen are horribly staid and dull, and often far longer than they would have preferred. Encourage your students to break this cycle by starting with a joke, poking fun at themselves, using a funny prop, bringing up amusing images, or using comedic mimes or facial expressions. One can easily go too far, but even this would be preferable to a long hour of droning verbiage.
Even the most gifted artists and writers have important moments where they hand their work to someone else and meekly ask, “So, what do you think?” The opinions of others are seldom without useful advice, be it a focus on the pace of speech, the amount of movement of use of visual aids, or the content of the presentation itself. If it’s possible, have your students deliver their presentations in a friendly, non-threatening context in the run-up to their main performance.
Use a Mirror
Actors do it, dancers do it, even musicians do it. Having a full view of yourself when practicing a presentation is a huge boost to your understanding of how you’ll be perceived. Be honest about what you see; is your posture confident? Do you have tics or mannerisms (e.g. playing with your hair, touching your face, fidgeting with an object) which might be distracting to the audience? Do you smile enough, or too much? Do you keep your head up, with your eyes on the ‘audience’, or is your face buried in your copy, hiding from the world?
I advise video and/or audio recordings in all kinds of situations; I still record most of my classes, and advice others to do the same. This is nowhere more useful than during preparations for a presentation. Sure, the experience of watching ourselves on film is decidedly odd, and may be quite uncomfortable, but remember that this is a diagnostic tool intended to cure what’s ailing your presentation technique. Watch with friends and get their feedback too; I once made an evening of this and invited a handful of people for a bottle of wine and a viewing of a talk I gave, just to help me prepare for an upcoming one.
Plan for Reality
Let me ask something: when you write a lesson plan, do you include approximate timings for each section? I’m a huge fan of doing this. The timings aren’t set in stone, and one must teach the class rather than teaching the plan, but having an overall sense of timings might help you stay on track. Put a clock on each section and see how efficiently you can move through that material without rushing or becoming unclear.
This isn’t an adjudication of your worth as a human being, nor will a poor performance result in dire punishment. It’s just a presentation, and like thousands given every day across the world, the quality will vary considerably. You won’t get it right the first time, or even the third, or tenth, but you’re involved in a life-long process of learning important skills and gathering confidence. Don’t be hard on yourself, even if watching the video of your presentation makes you cringe.
5 Troubleshooting Tips
Make plenty of notes when watching your video and try to compile advice to yourself in different categories. Here are some common problems and potential solutions:
Speaking Too Quickly
This is a matter of practice. Until I heard myself on tape, I spoke at the speed of sound in the classroom, bringing much confusion to the areas of rural China where I was working. Once I became aware of it, the transition required a concentrated and continuous effort to slow right down. My yardstick was this: once I’m speaking so slowly that I sound as though I’m patronizing my audience, then I’m probably going just slowly enough.
Yep, I was guilty of this, too. Almost as though I was conversing with native speakers, I used to run my words together, use slang, fail to complete sentences and simply hope the point still got across. Instead, once I’d heard the recordings, I made a special effort to clear up my pronunciation and, alongside generally slowing things down, worked to enunciate each word.
It might be too much, so that the speaker appears to be randomly wandering around the stage for no apparent reason. Or, it could be too little, so the speaker is statue-still, arms by their sides. A compromise is obviously best, but movement and gesture should always contribute to expressing the points in question. On tape, or in front of a mirror, use your hands broadly and expansively to clarify points or add color, but not so much that you appear to have become one of Marcel Marceau’s apprentices.
I’d guess that approximately 103% of student presentations go over time. Preparation can mitigate this, but in the heat of battle, nothing ever goes as we’d prefer. I might go so far as to include optional sections in the presentation plan, so that if you’re well over time, you can lose part of the content and catch up. Putting a clock on your rehearsals will help, as will writing down the intended timing next to each paragraph or sub-heading.
As we’ll see in the next article in this series of three, it’s possible to ruthlessly trim down your content so that it’s not too wordy. This is another way of saving time, but also eases the pressure on your audience’s patience.
This is a topic which is close to my heart.
I was a very shy teenager and developed a bad stammer which took years to eradicate. For me, public speaking (at concerts, where I was directing and performing) provided very challenging circumstances where I could debunk, once and for all, the myth that I had an actual speech impediment. I was just scared and unconvinced of my own abilities. With time, practice and guidance, your students can overcome the same kinds of obstacles, and begin to regard standing in front of an audience not as a terrifying moment of fate, but as a natural and enjoyable opportunity.