Do your kids like to speak in front of others? Probably not. But confidence in public speaking is important, even at a young age. Children deliver oral reports in classrooms, are interviewed for private schools, give bar/bat mitzvah speeches, and perform in drama classes, just to name a few examples.
If your children are nervous about public speaking what can you do? Aside from giving them lots of encouragement and providing informal opportunities to speak at home, there are three basic elements of good verbal communication that, if practiced, can help them be less nervous and more confident:
What to say
Let’s start with body language: We’ve all heard how important first impressions are. They’re actually crucial in public speaking. Your kids can have really interesting things to say, but if they shuffle their way up to the front, slouch, and look at the floor instead of into the eyes of their listeners, they may as well be reciting from the phone book. If they move with purpose and look confident, even if they’re not feeling it, they’ll go a long way towards making a positive impression on their listeners before they even speak a word.
Here’s an exercise: Have your kids practice good and bad body language – even to the point of exaggeration. Make it a game where they demonstrate body language that’s the complete opposite of what they’re saying, and then correct it. For instance, have them declare “I know exactly what I’m talking about” while shuffling their feet and looking at the floor. Then have them say the same thing standing up straight and looking you in the eyes. Have them do it in front of a mirror or put it on video so they can see the difference.
Voice tone: Many kids – especially girls – get into the bad habit of making statements sound like questions. You’ve heard it: “I got called on in class today? And the teacher said I gave a good report?” This vocal habit is a disaster, not only now but later in life, and if a child doesn’t stop this habit when young it may become very difficult to quit later on. Even if your child has lots of self-confidence, copying their friends and speaking with a vocal up-tick implies a desire for affirmation from others every time they speak, rather than confidence in what they know.
Another problem is lack of volume when talking in a pressure situation, often due to nervousness or shyness. Here’s where deep breathing before speaking helps. A deep breath supports the voice and gives it more carrying power.
Exercises: To get rid of the vocal question mark, have your kids practice saying a sentence both ways – ending up and ending down. Record it so they can hear the difference. During the day, if you hear it creeping in, perhaps ask what the question is until they eventually stop.
For breathing, have them stand in front of a mirror and take a deep breath. Their shoulders should not rise; in fact, only the area below the belly button should be expanding and contracting. They shouldn’t start to speak until they’re already exhaling. That way the voice will ride on their breath instead of starting with a catch in their throat.
What to say: So your kids have gotten the hang of looking and sounding confident. There’s no hint of question marks when they make statements. Their hearers are ready to assume the best. Now it’s time to actually say something. A basic rule of thumb, whether giving a book report or a bar mitzvah speech, is to start with the big picture and then get to specifics. At the end, go back to the big picture. For instance, if the assignment is “What I did on vacation,” they wouldn’t start with “we went snorkeling and saw colorful fish.” They’d start with “We went to Hawaii.” Then they’d get to the specifics of the trip, and finish off again with the big picture: “So we had a great time in Hawaii.”
Exercise: Have your kids practice going from the big picture to the specifics and back again. Make it a game. You say something specific: “traffic stops at a red light,” and they come up with the big picture: “Drivers have to obey traffic laws.” Or, you come up with the big picture: “Our family eats breakfast together,” and they have to come up with the specifics: “Some days we eat cereal and some days we eat eggs.”
Learning to speak comfortably and confidently in public is a great benefit for your kids, no matter how young they are. If you encourage them to have confident body language, strong voices, and interesting things to say it will help them enormously in school and beyond.