Improving your public speaking, part 4: The “A-Ha” experience

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

Young adult standing in front of group demonstrating public speaking skills during 4-H Capitol Experience.
Picture of a past participant in the 4-H Capitol Experience.

This the fourth 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 an easel or board for writing, and a box of random items that students can use for a “sales pitch.”

Step 1 

As part of best meeting practices, Michigan State University (MSU) Extension recommends starting all meetings with an icebreaker. It can also be a good opportunity to practice public speaking. Divide your room in half, use something to denote the dividing line, such as a chair.  Ask members of the group to line up on one side of the room or the other based on what they prefer on the questions below, or feel free to make up your own. Then ask at least one member of the group on each side to talk about why they are standing where they are. 

  • Cat person <> Dog person
  • Lower peninsula <> Upper peninsula
  • Extremely hot temperature <> Extremely cold temperature
  • Hot dogs <> Hamburgers
  • Lakes <> Rivers
  • Itchy forever <> Sticky forever

Step 2 

What do you remember better, something that you were told, or something that you figured out for yourself? Do you know the feeling you get when you understand something that you didn’t before? That “light bulb” that goes off when you gain new insight is a powerful experience. It attaches to a different part of your brain. Asking the right questions in public speaking is a powerful tool, as outlined by Georgia K. Mathis in the article for Edutopia, “Inquiry-Based Learning: The Power of Asking the Right Questions.”

Ask participants to talk about the best teachers or informal educators they have worked with.  Brainstorm those ideas and put them on a board or easel. Then ask participants how they can incorporate that into their public speaking.

Step 3

Using visual aids can help get a point across. It can be slides, posters, or material objects. Ask members to brainstorm ideas of what might make a good visual aid or prop for a presentation.

Step 4

Have a box of random items. Have each member select an item. They will be asked to give a two-minute “sales pitch” to get other members of the group to buy that item. Give them about 10 minutes to prepare, and then take turns “selling” their item. Remind them of the lessons from previous weeks (3 parts of the speech, clear purpose, using notecards, emotions/body language/eye contact, filler words).

Step 5

At the end of each sales pitch, ask the participants to self-assess how they did.  Then ask the other members of the group to provide feedback.  The facilitator can then balance out that 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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