Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the The Bear Creek School.
In the age of remote work and Zoom meetings, public speaking may seem like a dying art. But there is still a lot of value in teaching kids to speak in front of a live audience. Whether it’s acting in a play, presenting a report or competing in speech and debate, in-person performances teach kids a variety of practical skills and even contribute to personal growth.
“Being able to get up in front of people and speak with clarity and conviction is something we focus on,” says Grace Carruth, K–eighth grade drama director at The Bear Creek School, an independent Christian school in Redmond. Besides teaching drama, Carruth has experience with improv and competitive speaking, and she says all of these activities can teach kids valuable communication skills.
No matter how high-tech the world becomes, there will still be times when a good face-to-face first impression matters. When they grow up, our kids will still need to give convincing job interviews and project proposals. Activities like drama or speech and debate give kids a chance to practice speaking clearly and expressively while projecting their voice; moving and gesturing naturally even while nervous; and moving past mistakes when there is no opportunity to edit them out.
Empathy and confidence
But more important than any technical skills, public presentation builds two incredibly important social-emotional skills ― empathy and confidence.
“Being able to understand someone else’s story but also being able to articulate your story and your opinions are the two things that I try to teach in performance,” says Carruth. “The first thing is cultivating empathy. There’s something really incredible about stepping into someone else’s shoes. Sometimes that’s a character who might be very different from them. Sometimes they’re giving a presentation in class where they have to defend an argument that they may disagree with or where they have to do research into different viewpoints.” It’s also much easier to be charitable to another speaker when you know you have to go next, especially when neither of you is shielded behind a screen.
Giving a successful performance, or even surviving a bad one, builds confidence, too.
“It’s my job as the teacher to validate the student’s voice. Performing in front of others can make kids feel proud of who they are and make them feel that their voice is really important, and that people are willing to listen to them,” says Carruth, and that can make a difference no matter what kind of career a child grows up to pursue. “Even if your job isn’t public-facing and you don’t talk to people all the time, having that sense that your voice is important and you are valued, having the confidence to defend your opinions, applies anywhere,” she says.
Finding the right stage
“Sometimes you just have to try it. You might discover you really like being on stage and having people listen to you,” says Carruth. Having a teacher who makes sure the environment is playful and safe makes it easier for shy kids to give performance a shot.
“Sometimes the introverts really surprise you,” says Carruth. “Some kids who are totally the class clown that other kids think of as just being silly completely wow people with how well they can turn that energy into a good performance.” For the kids who are natural hams, performing is not only a healthy outlet, but an opportunity to practice being a team player. The community that comes from having friends on the speech team or in the drama club can make the stress of performance worthwhile for shyer students.
“Different people thrive in different areas,” says Carruth. Fortunately, there are lots of different types of public presentation to suit different personalities, and each one has its own strengths. Choosing an extracurricular performance avenue is kind of a left-brain/right-brain question.
“With public speaking, you’re focusing a little bit more on the analytical or rhetorical side ― how can I make this argument really convincing? Do I have good sources? Am I able to speak with authority?” explains Carruth. “Theater tends to lean a little bit more into the emotional side of performance ― getting into character and enveloping yourself in a story or a world.”
Writing also teaches students how to develop logical arguments and cite reliable sources and fiction immerses a child in character and story. But whether they are reciting their own words or those of others, Carruth says, “I think there’s a human aspect that you just can’t get from writing. Some people have really clear authorial voices, but the step up to having a face-to-face conversation or presentation really humanizes the person whom you’re talking to or getting the information from.”
For more advanced students or those with courage to spare, improv is all about course correcting, thinking on the fly and responding to the unexpected ― skills that apply to many areas of life outside of performance.
Braving the stage
Some kids love the limelight, while for others even reading out loud is a real challenge. But at some point in their education, all of them will be required to participate in a class play or give a presentation. Parents can help their children prepare for these performances.
Especially when kids are younger, you can help them memorize their lines. In drama, you can ask questions that help them think about how they want to convey a character’s feelings and personality. As they get older, students may take more responsibility for being prepared. But you can still be a practice audience and provide moral support.
Carruth emphasizes that it’s good to be a little nervous. “I tell my students to embrace the butterflies. If you don’t feel a little bit nervous, you’re more likely to make mistakes.” Butterflies give a performance energy and improve focus, but sheer terror is something to overcome. For most people, that just comes from experience.
But until a child has survived a few presentations, Carruth has some tips for getting past the fear. “Practice it so much that even if you’re not confident in getting up in front of people, you’re confident in your practice,” she says. It also helps if a student can choose a topic they’re passionate about. It’s easier to speak about something you know really well and have thoroughly rehearsed.
“The audience is often rooting for you. The audience isn’t looking for you to fail,” says Carruth. Point out that when your child watches a play, they want to enjoy it, not find flaws. When they watch their friends’ presentations, they are hoping they do well. Let kids know that their teacher and classmates are similarly nonjudgmental towards them.
Mistakes are inevitable, and don’t need to cause panic.
“It’s just one mistake. Don’t back the train up. If you need to pause and take a breath and recenter yourself, great. Chances are nobody’s going to even notice,” says Carruth. Even if there’s no covering up a mistake or a performance goes completely sideways, it’s a learning experience. “I tell them that weeks or years from now, you’ll laugh about it. It’s going to be a funny story that you tell.”
And Carruth has one more piece of advice for young performers.
“It’s easy to think the audience is in charge. But when you’re standing up there, you own the room. I think it takes time to realize that. But once you do, you’re able to step out courageously into public speaking.”