What an auspicious occasion! In my twenty plus year career as a communication professor and presentation coach, I have never presented in front of such an accomplished and famous audience. Before me were 75 of the most influential Americans I could imagine…I was introduced by Jackie Robinson. To my right sat Benjamin Franklin. Across from Mr. Franklin were Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony. To their left were John F. Kennedy and Mark Twain. No, I was not part of a strange sequel to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. “ Rather, these historical titans were elementary school kids a week away from that familiar right of passage — delivering their Famous American presentations. Soon, these children would be enlightening their friends, families, and teachers about the biographies of their famous Americans.
Their teachers invited me to their classes to offer advice to these kids on how to present more confidently and constructively. They had grown tired of having their students simply read or recite their presentations. Rather, these teachers wanted to see some engaging, conversational speeches. Since my son was among my audience –- he was George Washington is you’re curious — I had a pretty good idea of the issues and concerns these teachers had.
In what follows, I hope to provide parents and teachers with specific tips and advice they can pass along to their elementary and middle school children to help these kids to become more authentic, compelling communicators.
While the parents of most of these kids had countless encounters with good and bad presenters, the students before me had few. To help my audience appreciate their goal, I related presenting to teaching — something these students had several years of experience with. I asked, “What do good teachers do to help their students learn?” I received answers such as:
“Good teachers give lots of examples that I understand.”
“Teachers help me learn by repeating what they say.”
“They really use their voice and arms to make it interesting.”
“I like when my teachers stick to an agenda.”
“My teacher clearly knew what she was saying and how to say it.”
Astonishingly, these eight year olds clearly identified the very topics that I address with my MBA students and the executives I coach. They noted the importance of structure and support, delivery, and practice. By seeing their presenting job as teaching, my young orators realized that they needed to engage their audience to help them learn and pay attention.
To help with their teaching goal, I introduced them to two useful acronyms.
1. Have a B.L.A.S.T.
Breathe deeply before speaking to help the jitters go away.
Look at your audience so you can tell if they are interested in what you are saying.
Attend to your stance by placing your feet forward directly under your shoulders.
Speak loudly and clearly so people in the back of the room can hear you.
Talk with your hands to describe what you are saying.
This first acronym focuses on presentation delivery – how you say what you say. Many nervous and novice speakers manifest presenting behaviors that distract their audience from the core message of the speech (e.g., rushed speaking rate, disfluencies, spurious movement, etc.). No audience member likes to witness a nervous speaker. The speaker’s anxiety behaviors make it hard to pay attention to the speaker’s content.
By invoking presentation behaviors, such as sustaining eye contact, standing balanced, speaking loudly, and gesturing in a descriptive manner, presenters – adults and children alike – can appear more confident. In my book Speaking Up without Freaking Out, I call this approach to presentation delivery “fake it until you make it.” By acting confidently (regardless of how you really feel), your audience will see you as confident and treat you as such. In turn, you will begin to feel more confident because of your audience’s positive response.
When working with children on speech delivery, I have found it best to focus on how their behavior (e.g., reading from their note cards) affects their “students,” rather than comment on their specific behavior. In other words, I have found success comes from asking, “How do you think your students will feel if they see you reading your material?” Rather than commenting: “You don’t make eye contact.”
2. Provide a M.A.P. for your listeners.
Memorize key points not your whole talk, which allows you to have a conversation.
Anticipate questions and think of answers before your present.
Provide a list of your points so your audience knows what you will be telling them.
This second acronym focuses on the presentation’s content – what you say. The key here is to create an outline of your content with the main points defined. Encourage your child to memorize only these points, not everything he or she intends to say. A fully memorized speech sounds over-rehearsed and remote, rather than conversational and engaging. This is hard for students, but only memorizing key ideas will be very helpful to them in the future. You can help them by asking them to provide slightly different versions of the support they use for their memorized key points. For example, you can ask them to first share a story and then next time they practice give only a quote or some relevant facts.
Like grown up presentations, kids will often be asked questions when they finish speaking. This can be very nerve-wracking because you often don’t know what will be asked. Challenge your child to think of potential questions audience members may ask prior to having them draft the presentation. In this way, your child can include the answers to the questions in the presentation, or he or she can practice answers to likely questions as part of their preparation.
Like a good teacher, presenters need to set expectations for what they are going to say. Ask your child about a recent class art project. Specifically, inquire about the instructions that the teacher gave. My hunch is that the teacher clearly previewed all of the steps involved in the project and this structure helped the student to complete the art project successfully…without too much fuss and mess. People of all ages intuitively know that structured information helps both presenters and audiences remember the content. Research suggests we remember structured information up to 40% better. You need only think about how you remember 10-digit phone numbers via a structure of chunked numbers 3-3-4 to appreciate how structure helps.
Armed with the idea of having a BLAST by using a MAP, kids can be more successful when presenting. With these two acronyms in mind, my students practiced their presentations with the energy and enthusiasm befitting the personas they were representing. A week later, after witnessing their confident, compelling presentations, I came to realize that in not too many more years when these kids will be the age of my current college students…I may be out of a job!