- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

I just learned that 75 percent of people have “glossophobia,” the fear of speaking in public — and many rank it as more frightening than death.

I speak publicly all the time, and I have trained hundreds of kids to be effective and interesting speakers. Home-schooled students usually are not encumbered with some of the intimidating experiences of traditional classrooms, but learning to speak in front of a group requires skill building.

Here are some methods I find useful:

• Start with practicing short statements with a clear purpose: making an announcement, welcoming people to something, thanking someone for some action. Use the “who, what, when, where, why and how” structure. The idea is to engage the audience quickly, give them vital information and get a response that indicates they understood.

• Students can practice more easily in a circle. The physical setup is less daunting, and they can feel embraced and supported by having people next to them.

• Encourage students to look audience members in the eyes, catching various people’s facial expressions and responding naturally.

• Share the power of the question. Have students practice asking their audience something that elicits a response: “Who here likes ice cream (or skateboarding, or music, or what have you)?” Show them how to wait for the response, look around the room and acknowledge those who respond. Interaction transforms the speech into a natural conversation.

• Limit — or eliminate — written notes. Cue cards become crutches that end up distracting the speaker. If notes must be used, teach the student to simply lay them down on the podium or table and use them only to prod the memory if absolutely necessary.

• Teach students to make mental notes and to speak naturally based on those. Teach them tricks such as creating unforgettable mental pictures as memory joggers. (Discourage memorizing the speech verbatim. It becomes dry, boring and sing-song-ish.)

The ideal is to know what they want to say and be able to say it in a fresh way for that particular audience. Teach the speakers to “read” the room, and to verbalize what the audience may be feeling. “I know it’s hot and you’ve all been learning so much today, and you may be feeling tired, but I promise to make this short (or interesting, or fun).” Thank them for being attentive.

• Employ action. Get people to physically do something — stand up, raise a hand, make a gesture or sound, change body posture — to engage their minds and bodies. This increases the ability to grasp information, and makes your point memorable to the listeners.

• Practice what to do if something unexpected happens: a power outage, fire alarm, spilled glass of water. Show students how to use the event to create positive impact. Make a joke out of it, or use it to continue the point of the presentation.

• Total mastery is being able to give the same content in a fluctuating time frame. For instance, you’ve planned to speak for 10 minutes, but others spoke too long, and now you have only three minutes. This can work in your favor. Announce the time change to your audience, pare your statements to the main points, make them clearly and with intensity, and ask for the audience to take action. People will be surprised and grateful that you could boil things down so well, and will respect you for respecting the time frame. Like President Lincoln at Gettysburg, your comments probably will be the more memorable for being brief.

A final tip: Good speaking comes from one’s heart and genuine beliefs. I strongly advise against the typical “debate club” exercise of training someone to argue any side in a debate. Listeners know the difference between sincerity and pretense. Good speakers value their message and don’t expend their energies promoting ideas they don’t espouse.

Becoming an excellent speaker can be enjoyable and profitable. Comedians, politicians, teachers and salespeople all make a living from speaking before groups. Learning effective presentation skills is a strong foundation for career success.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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