Developing public speaking skills in youth

Public speaking is an important skill for youth to master. Consider these tips for success.

Public speaking is an important life skill for youth and adults alike. Even though a small fraction of the population actually makes a living from public speaking, such as actors, comedians or inspirational speakers, most everyone can benefit from the ability to say a few public words without passing out. Presentations are now an important part of most classroom curriculum, but they don’t end at high school graduation. Higher degrees often require a “defense” presentation, sharing the latest and greatest in any profession often involves a presentation at a conference, and if you ever plan to stand up in a best friend’s wedding, this often requires a toast. Even at the most basic level, job interviews require the ability to gather your thoughts and speak coherently in a high-pressure situation.

Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development provides training on public speaking. When working with youth to develop public speaking skills, one should consider the following tips.

  • Talk about nerves. Get it out in the open right away. Everyone gets nervous. Talk about the “symptoms” of nerves in public speaking. People experience sweaty palms, shaking hands or legs, upset stomach, dizziness and a variety of other symptoms. Remind youth this is normal, share your own experiences, and then talk about ways to reduce those symptoms. For example, people that experience shaky hands might find it beneficial to hold onto the podium as they speak. Nerves can never be completely eliminated; even professional speakers experience nerves. In fact, a little bit of nervous energy keeps a speaker alert and more focused.
  • Make notes, not a script. It’s always best to give a presentation or speech on a topic the presenter knows very well or is passionate about. This allows the presenter to use a more conversational tone rather than having to read from a script or constantly check on facts and figures. Notes can help a presenter feel more comfortable, but they should be in the form of an outline of points they want to cover, not a script they read word for word. Reading from a script limits eye contact and changes the natural influxes of a speaking tone.
  • Practice makes perfect. Novice speakers especially benefit from practicing the words they want to say out loud, either in front of a mirror or with a small audience of friends or family. Practice helps commit important phrases to memory and helps the presenter have a sense of the amount of time it will take to deliver their message. When practicing, consider appropriate hand gestures, posture, tone of voice and eye contact. If not executed correctly, these factors can distract from the message the speaker is trying to deliver.

Building confidence in public speaking is an important life skill with many important real-life applications. A complete curriculum around preparing verbal presentations can be found in the Michigan 4-H Communications Toolkit. Additionally, Michigan 4-H members will have an opportunity to increase their public speaking and other communication skills during Michigan’s first 4-H Teen Spokesperson Training offered July 13, 2015, at MSU.

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