Improving your public speaking, part 3: It is in the details

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

Group of young adults sitting at tables in discussion during the 4-H Capitol Experience.
Photo of past participants during the 4-H Capitol Experience.

This the third 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. Supplies needed for this exercise include writing utensils and paper.

Step 1 

Starting meetings with an icebreaker can help folks get to know each other. Start by discussing how the tone of your voice affects the meaning when you speak. Tell participants to share about an animal that they have at their home, or their favorite animal and why. They will be asked to share with a particular emotion in their voice, and then the other members of the group will try to guess that emotion. Write down the following emotions (or others you come up with) on pieces of paper, and have participants pull one at random. After everyone has shared, facilitate a short conversation about how the emotions affected the messages. 

  • Excited
  • Bored
  • Shy
  • Angry
  • Stressed
  • Confused
  • Curious
  • Joyful
  • Sad
  • Tired
  • Frustrated
  • Awestruck

Step 2 

Body language and eye contact are critical parts of public speaking. Often, we feel emotions from a speaker and might not understand where they are coming from. Notice anything that might be “blocking” yourself from your audience. Are your legs or arms crossed in front of your body? Is there a book or laptop blocking the speaker from the audience? Are your hands behind your back or in your pockets? What might that convey? Are you rocking or swaying back and forth? Are you fidgeting with a pen, your clothing, or your hair?

Step 3 

Filler words are what we say when there is a pause in conversation. Ask participants to discuss why they think they say filler words. Brainstorm a list of filler words that they have heard others use when speaking. Here are some examples:

  • Um/Uh
  • You know
  • Basically/Actually
  • Like
  • Ok
  • I mean
  • So
  • Well
  • Right/Alright
  • Kind of/Sort of

One reason some people use filler words is because they are uncomfortable with silence. Ask participants to be completely quiet and ask them to raise their hands when they begin to feel uncomfortable with the silence. After a full minute, you can discuss why the silence is difficult for some people.

Share with participants that everyone uses filler words, so the goal isn’t to get rid of them entirely – but rather to recognize that too many of them become distracting. Ask participants to share what they can do instead of using a filler word. The most common is to pause.

Step 4

The group will tell a story collectively, with each person taking two minutes, then the story passing on to the next person. The next person will pick up the story for the next two minutes.   Ask anyone not telling the story to make notes of the positive things and items for improvement.  Make note of body language and filler words. The facilitator can start the story with a prompt such as “Once upon a time” or “Last year in the fall” or “What did Sparty do on summer vacation?” or another prompt of their choosing. 

Step 5

Have participants share first their own thoughts on how they did, then get feedback from the group. As the facilitator, try to balance out the participants’ feedback.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program helps to prepare youth as positive and 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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