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Helping your child conquer stage fright

Published on: November 01, 2009

Don’t you love the way kids communicate these days? They text, they IM, they email. Somewhere along the line, talking one-on-one became so last century.

Experiencing stage frightBut talking in front of a group has never gone out of style. Can today’s youngsters do that — articulately, intelligently and persuasively — if asked to do so?

When I went through school, learning how to speak in public was a Very Big Deal. Kindergarten teachers launched show and tell. That grew into the one-minute oral book report, which became the three-minute “How I Spent My Summer” commentary. Those few who discovered an inviting niche that combined unlimited verbosity with undivided attention forged ahead with speech and debate class.

That was then, this is now. Today’s schools often tread water amid tight budgets, large classes and revamped priorities. Parents, teachers and students find agendas altered as educators and others lobby for courses in technology or life skills or global learning or whatever politically, culturally or educationally correct matrix is currently in favor.

What’s more, there’s no public-speaking section on the WASL, the SAT, the ACT or any other standardized test. And in an era that quantifies learning, No Child Left Behind translates into No Way to Measure, which translates into No Way Schools Will Spend Time and Money Teaching It.

“There’s a perception that using all the cool tech stuff will take the place of getting up and communicating your ideas verbally,” says Joel Underwood, speech and debate coach at Seattle Academy of Arts and Science. “But actually, the opposite is true. People are impressed by those who can get up and speak well.”

Consider, for example, the way the country has been reacting to the rousing speeches we’ve heard during the presidential campaigns. Are we truly stunned by the oratory talents of (a few of) these candidates? Or are we simply underexposed to sparkling discourse?

Communication skills matter

People base judgments about others on the way they speak and use language, Underwood points out. “Those skills — how to exchange ideas, how to have a discussion or a debate in a positive manner — that’s what our kids aren’t learning,” he says.

Instead, they watch confrontational-style TV talk shows that pass for an exchange of ideas. “This Crossfire-type programming presents two people from far extremes who shout at each other,” says Underwood. “Whoever yells the loudest wins.”

Sharpening communication skills will enable students to hold their own in any conversation, says Barbara Hair, principal of Emerald Heights Academy, an independent school in Bellevue. “These kids are the leaders of the future. They may learn to think critically, but they must be able to convey their ideas to others to be successful in life.”

Confidence counts. Those who exude it project their ideas with clarity and self-assurance, she says. “It shows they are good thinkers and have opinions to share.”

It’s not just politicians who are called upon to publicly voice their beliefs or strategies. Poets do readings; scientists give presentations; community organizers, board members and corporate CEOs offer PowerPoint presentations. “In any career choice, you’ll be in a situation where you’ll have to do this. You need to know you will survive it,” Underwood says.

Kids also need to know they’ll survive interviews. Chances are, they’ll face a few. There’s the college interview, the job interview and — you can always dream — the interview your daughter gives after she writes her best seller or wins the Tour de France.

How to help

How can you encourage your kids to become effective speakers? First, understand that many children — like many adults — may never be completely comfortable in front of a group. Be sensitive to those anxieties, says Underwood. If your child is about to deliver an oral report at school, he’ll be nervous the night before. “Make sure he has a good night’s sleep — and a good breakfast.”

Volunteer to act as an audience for your child’s practice speech. Be supportive, even if he stumbles over a word or two, or trips over his shoelaces. “Don’t overcorrect,” says Underwood. “That’s the teacher’s job.”

Then give him one tip — and one tip only — that you feel will enhance his presentation: slow down, or keep breathing, or talk louder, whatever. “Your child will have all kinds of opportunities to speak. Maybe he’ll give a talk at Boy Scouts, or she’ll have a bat mitzvah,” says Underwood. “There’s plenty of time to give lots of advice.”

What else can you do? Model good communication at home. Encourage children to talk about their day around the dinner table and ask them specific questions. And remember that kids soak up verbal patterns, nuances and plain old unattractive slang from their parents.

Find them outlets and activities that promote performing and speaking, such as drama or choir. And make sure they watch you deliver a talk or two in front of a group — or even at a family gathering. If you suffer a bit from public-speaking anxiety yourself, it’s OK to initiate your own oratory career with the simplest of speeches: Offer a toast. It’s a beginning.

Linda Morgan, ParentMap associate editor and education writer, is a former writing instructor.

Props, practice and more

Dr. Kenneth Snyder, co-author of What! I Have to Give a Speech?, feels strongly about the value of effective public speaking. So strongly, in fact, that he founded the Leaders of Tomorrow Foundation, dedicated to training students in speech and communication. His national workshops are designed to help teachers teach these skills. “Not enough people are teaching this — and those who are often teach it the wrong way,” says Snyder.

Here’s what he suggests:

  • Make eye contact.
  • Speak loudly.
  • Use hand motions.
  • Enhance the facts with a personal experience or story.
  • Don’t memorize your speech — it takes too much energy and increases anxiety.
  • Show interest and enthusiasm in your topic.
  • Use props — these will help you feel people aren’t staring at you.
  • Don’t speak in a monotone; vary your voice.
  • Practice in front of a mirror.

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