Helping public speaking students with anxiety can be done!
I am accustomed to having a public speaking class or specific speech units embedded within a class. These past few years, I’ve had more freedom in how I implement public speaking with students. With this freedom, I’ve developed activities that will work in most classes to ease public speaking nerves. Public speaking students are all nervous to some extent. As speech teachers, we must acknowledge and hopefully help public speaking students with anxiety.
Working with public speaking students in a variety of areas can address nerves and prevent the running from the classroom. (I’ve had that happen.) With a small bit of planning, we secondary teachers can help our students with speech anxiety . Here are four ways for helping public speaking students with anxiety.
Focus on presenting, not reading
First, I get it, really. Before I present at a conference or in front of colleagues, I get sweaty hands and shaky knees. Everyone is staring at me. I’ve made this beautiful presentation, why not focus on that? Could I just read? Therefore, I share that idea with my students. Very few people are completely immune from nerves with public speaking, and the temptation to read is there.
Second, when high school public speaking students know their material, they are likely to succeed at speeches. Students should become mini-experts on their speeches. Will the actual speech be the same as the outline? No! Boost students’ confidence that their knowledge will make them successful speakers.
Third, to counteract the belief that giving a speech is reading an outline, I read students a presentation about engaging their audience. The lesson I’m teaching is in complete contrast to my delivery. It’s terrible! By performing such an awful speech, students are able to laugh and understand my point.
Finally, we discuss why people read from a Powerpoint and how to prepare well enough so they don’t rely on the visual aid. Plus, students can laugh at me. They’ve seen me be goofy, and it sets the classroom community as a forgiving one.
Think on your feet
Additionally, I work on impromptu speaking throughout the year to show students that speaking extemporaneous additions can help a delivery. No matter your subject material, students should be able to respond coherently and clearly. Public speaking with students will naturally include impromptu speaking. (Download those activities for free.) Cut the slips of paper and ask students to draw a topic. Students should realize that most speaking in real life is a version of impromptu speaking.
A quick way to add an element of public speaking is to give a mini-lesson on organizing thoughts in your head and presenting them coherently. That free download even includes a rubric, making the process quick for you and students. Whatever topic you study in class, you can add a quick element of impromptu speaking.
Not only should students practice public speaking, but they should also be aware of public speaking as audience members. Videos, commercials, and social media bombard our students with material that they should know how to navigate. What videos specifically target students? Also, what is manipulative? Plus, what should students question? (Lots of questions for audience members!) By looking at public speaking as audience members, you are emphasizing that everyone has a role. Establishing that ideas with your students then establishes public speaking activities as a cooperative endeavor: Everyone has a job.
Be compassionate with young audiences. Students may not even understand that they are targeted—that the videos were made specifically with their interests and beliefs in mind. Teach students about audience analysis. This media literacy lesson helps with both students as the speaker and an audience member. Both parts of public speaking matter. I remind students before speeches begin that every class member is actively participating, either as a speaker or audience member.
Finally, when students own knowledge about their audience, they are empowered. Show students that knowing about an audience both targets their message and prepares them for an engaged audience.
Most of our communication is nonverbal, but verbal communication still matters. Whatever unit or content area you are, students can present a radio commercial for that topic. I ask students to write and present a radio commercial for a nonprofit. They read their commercial (as a voice-over) without a large focus on nonverbal communication. By eliminating the normal components of a typical speech, students can then focus on verbal communication. This targeted practice boosts confidence, helping public speaking students with anxiety.
What I specifically like about this activity is that students experience the power of words. Writing is powerful, and presenting is powerful, but can only verbal communication be powerful? Yes! Students must strive to make the most of their radio commercial so that every word matters.
Sometimes, I believe my high school students think that professional authors sit and write a book, no mistakes! No rewriters! Similarly, my secondary students think that performers simply walk on stage and win awards.
I spend most of my time practicing with speech students and pairing students to practice with each other. So often, I give a brief overview of expectations and then practice with students for the reminder of the class period.
For practice sessions, I provide myself for a one-on-one resource. I set a timer and tell the student to ask whatever they want. Often, they want reassurance that a topic is organized or that they don’t sound dumb. (They don’t; they’re just nervous.)
Another practice focus can be on a struggle area: breathing, fillers, hand gestures. Concentrate on one area with students and give them reminders and heaps of praise. Oftentimes, I encourage students to make that focus part of their goal sheets for speech. (All of my speech students have individual goals.) Helping public speaking students with anxiety is somewhat of a coaching strategy, of seeing what reassurance each individual speaker needs.
Finally, ask students to choose their best portion and present it to you. Note what goes well: are students confident? passionate? do they have ample transitions? Explain why that portion goes well and encourage the student to connect that to the rest of the speech.
Lessons for helping public speaking students with anxiety can take many forms. These four activities and built-in practice can work across content areas. They are all part of my public speaking bundle, and you can use them in diverse ways.
Still looking for more public speaking activities? Melissa at Reading and Writing Haven has you covered. Check our her ideas for public speaking with students.