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Presentation Tips for Students: Take the Fear Out of Public Speaking

Gradeschool student presents in front of a classroom

During my own days in school, public speaking was not my thing, which is ironic given my decision to become a teacher who speaks in front of tiny humans 180 days a year. Even though my class is a small audience, it's not always a friendly one, especially when tests and homework are on the agenda. My own education included dull, carefully researched, and deadly boring presentations on acid rain, Abraham Lincoln, and The Scarlet Letter.

When I started my career, I wasn't sure of the best way to teach presentation tips for students, but I knew how I didn't want to use the skin-crawling approaches my own teachers employed. I wanted to help my students begin to become skilled, confident public speakers without resorting to the tired old cliché about imagining the audience in their underwear.

Your students may not realize the only thing more painful than speaking in public is teaching kids to speak in public. But that's why I'm here. Before you officially assign your students a public speaking project, take a look at these presentation tips for students, which I've used successfully over the years.

Be Open to Unexpected Topics

If helping your students build public speaking skills is your primary goal, I would encourage flexibility with your choice of topic. For your first attempt, veer entirely away from academic areas and let your student prepare a presentation about a favorite hobby, special skill, or memorable experience. This way, they can focus on the presentation aspect while not stressing about learning new subject matter content. Once your students have started to grasp public speaking basics, you can follow up with additional presentations that are more scholarly in nature.

Even though I taught English Language Arts, one of my favorite public speaking units involved science. The unit culminated with each student writing a multi-step speech and presenting a simple science experiment to the class. This was a great way for the more anxious students to settle their nerves as they devoted most of their attention to their demonstration. The speaking element, while important, became less pressured. Some students felt comfortable enough to not even need their written notes, and most of them found the science experiment aspect to be more engaging than just talking about a deceased author.

Take Advantage of Technology

If you have easy access to computers or tablets, having your students incorporate them into their presentation is a great way to increase their comfort level with technology and public speaking at the same time. Having them create visuals and other media to accompany their speeches will not only help them energize their presentations, but help them build and solidify skills to use in future academic and professional endeavors.

And, like the strategy above, letting the students add technological elements may take the edge off as their presentations become more sophisticated. The interest many students have in anything involving a screen (within reason) can even create a more engaged audience for your more anxious speakers.

Start with Presentations to Small Groups First

Chances are, you have a mix of attitudes among your students, as has been my experience. Some of my students are comfortable being the center of attention, bordering on theatrical, while others would rather endure a steady diet of cafeteria food for the rest of their lives than speak in front of people—even their peers. But many land somewhere in the middle: happy to post endless selfies but not eager to actually talk in front of people. Asking students to begin by preparing short speeches and sharing in small groups can help the shyer kids build confidence by working their way up to a larger audience. And it can help the students who may feel so energized in the spotlight that they get off task and don't successfully complete the assignment.

Small groups also provide a low-pressure outlet for each group member to give one another constructive feedback, which will be useful when they present in front of a larger group.

Consider allowing students to present as a team of four to five students, as well. It's a great way to scaffold the experience to the benefit of everyone. Some may never really enjoy public speaking, but easing them into it by having them practice alongside their (equally nervous) classmates can increase their comfort and success.

Think about Group Presentations

There is always safety in numbers for kids who are nervous about public speaking. Creating a task that can be broken into parts for a group may help ease frazzled nerves by fostering teamwork that wouldn't have existed otherwise. Students who are anxious about public speaking may feel more secure as part of a team, as opposed to presenting solo. A group structure also provides students with a chance to develop stronger interpersonal skills, which are useful in school and in careers. While managing group dynamics may provide you with additional challenges, it can also benefit the students by giving them valuable opportunities to collaborate and support one another as they craft their presentations.

Chances are, some of your students will never enjoy public speaking, and that's OK. It's still possible to teach your students the basics of public speaking, though, providing them with a foundation they can build upon and apply again and again as they get older.