The Importance of Teaching Students Public Speaking Skills

My career as an educator and educational consultant requires that I speak in front of people – regularly. I have to speak in front of adolescents, peers, colleagues, etc. Not to toot my own horn, but I often get compliments on the ease and comfort that I exude while talking in front of groups. And honestly, I do feel quite comfortable being the center of focus in a room – I have long gotten over the anxiety and nerves that come with talking in front of a crowd. However, it was a long journey to get there.

There was a time that speaking in public filled me with dread, loathing, and fear. The first time I spoke in public, I was 22 years old in graduate school at UCLA. I was TAing a class on Ancient History that had an enrollment of 381 students. We met in one of those large theater-type classrooms. You stood at a podium in front of the students, raised up on a stage, and spoke over a microphone. My professor had directed all of the TAs that we would be giving at least one lecture that quarter. On the day that I was up, I was frazzled and exhausted (having not slept at all the night before). I didn’t eat breakfast as my stomach was turned in knots. I spent a full ten minutes before going up on stage throwing up in the bathroom. To this day, the talk itself was a blur… blocked by some psychological protective mechanism I am sure.

I always tell my students that story. One, it’s a good story and quite funny. But also, I think it highlights the importance of their learning public speaking skills. I chose a profession that required it. And most of us, if only a limited capacity, need to speak in groups (large and small) at some point. The great moral of my story: don’t be like me; don’t learn the hard way; learn to speak in public now – and we’re going to do that in class.

You see, public speaking is one of those skills that you only improve through practice… in other words, you need to speak in public. This is one of the reasons why I highlight public speaking in my classes. I do not teach public speaking or a speech class. I teach History and Art History. Still, every week, my students stand up in front of the room and give a very brief (1-2 minute) report to their classmates. Every year, when I announce this assignment, my students look at me wide-eyed with terror. The first time they stand up in front of the class their nerves are palpable – they stammer, their fidget, they say “um” or “uhhh” every few words. However, every week, it gets a little easier and by the end of the year, they comfortable stand up in front of their peers and give their presentations with a casual stride.

As a teacher of history, it’s a lot easier for me to incorporate public speaking into my lessons and class. It’s one of the myriad of skills that my students will use in the ‘real world.’ Below, find the prompt and instructions for what they present in class.

As you can see, the focus is a ‘current events’ type of presentation with a bit of a twist – the current event must be about history. Stories on archaeological excavations, fights over cultural artifacts, new discoveries in history and art history, there is no shortage of topics.

I am often asked by colleagues why I limit the number of words in their slides – that is to ensure that they do not read off of their slide (I have seen students literally turn around and read an entire presentation off of a PowerPoint slide).

At the end of every school year, because of this exercise, my students are never afraid to speak in public. They are confident, assured, and practiced at a challenging art.

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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Teaching Students Public Speaking Skills

  1. norm

    I encourage my young people to take a speech class or two in high school to prepare them for that day in their future when standing before a group and talking freely is required. It is every bit the part of a good education as learning how numbers work.

    Reply
  2. David Korfhage (@drkorfhage)

    As a speech and debate coach, I agree about the importance of speaking skills. And I like the presentation idea. I’ve thought vaguely about that sort of assignment in the past, but it’s helpful to see it concrete and thought out. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Digging Deeper – The Weekly Blog Round-Up – 17th September 2012 | The Amateur Archaeologist

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