Improving your public speaking, part 1: Getting started

Simple exercises that folks of all ages can do to improve their public speaking.

Young adult standing at podium speaking as part of the 4-H Capitol Experience.
Photo from 4-H Capitol Experience.

This the first part of a series of five articles that can be used together with groups of youth who want to learn more about public speaking. It can be used by 4-H clubs, student councils, school classrooms, or virtually any group looking to learn tips for public speaking. Many people fear talking in front of others for many reasons and these activities will allow participants to start simple and then add more skills to strengthen their public speaking as the lessons move on.

Step 1

Starting a meeting with an icebreaker is important to get folks ready to speak in front of a group. “Have you ever?” Is a simple exercise that gets participants talking. Put your chairs in a circle, with one less chair than there are participants. When facilitating this exercise, the facilitator can start the process. Start by saying your name, where you are from, and then ask a question, such as “Have you ever been swimming in the Great Lakes?” Everyone who has done that finds a new seat. The person that remains standing says their name, where they are from, and a little bit about their answer to the question, such as “I went swimming in Lake Michigan last summer.” Then they ask a new question. It is okay if someone doesn’t get to talk, but you can adjust your questions to get a particular person up to speak.

Step 2

Discuss with the group about any potential fears related to public speaking. Let them know it is okay to feel uncomfortable, and new things often feel uncomfortable. 

Step 3

30-second practice. Ask each participant to speak for 30 seconds on any subject they choose. It would be helpful to share some tips on how to choose a topic. Topics that are something they either know a lot about or are passionate about are easy first topics. Applaud for each person when they finish, but don’t give other feedback. The reason for not giving feedback is because this might be the first public speaking experience, and we want the participants to try it out.

Step 4

Discuss how to set up a speech. Explain that every talk should have a beginning, where you set up the situation and get folks excited. Ask participants for some examples of a good way to get the attention of the audience. The main part of a speech explains the information. The speech should end with a conclusion, including the main points you want to walk away with. This could also be described as: 1.) Tell them what you’re going to tell them, 2.) Tell them, and 3.) Tell them what you told them. 

Step 5

Tell participants they will give a 1-minute speech. Give participants time to prepare their speech. Let them know you will hold up a card when they have 30 seconds left, and 10 seconds left. 

Step 6

Reflect with the participants on how they felt when they spoke. Ask them to share what they felt they did well, and what they want to improve upon in the future. Consider having youth write down these reflections, so they can review them at the end of all the public speaking activities.

Michigan State University (MSU) Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program helps to prepare youth as positive, engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways MSU Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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