An audience with...

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Under the threshold: Public speaking is different to talking to your class

The jelly-legged bundle of nerves behind the microphone may look like you.

But, with a squeaky voice, glow of perspiration, churning stomach and knocking knees, it sure doesn't sound or feel like you. If this seems like a familiar scenario, you may be one of many teachers who quake at the thought of public speaking.

To those outside the profession, a teacher being nervous in this situation sounds like an anomaly. After all, teachers spend the majority of their working week in front of an audience. But, as many will testify, teaching a class of 30 in a small room is worlds apart from delivering a speech to a packed hall.

According to Chris Grimshaw, headteacher at Latimer arts college in Northamptonshire, anxiety about public speaking is more pronounced in teachers in the early part of their career.

"They are so desperate to get everything right," he says. "They don't see that it's alright to make mistakes, that with a cool head, errors can be turned into strengths. Even the tiniest mistake or hesitation is seen as a cause for embarrassment, which needn't be the case at all."

Many teachers are anxious about being judged by their peers, says Linda More, a public speaking coach. "They feel as if they are putting themselves on the line, as if they are going to be judged. It's particularly frustrating because they know they're fine in front of children, but put them in front of parents and colleagues and everything goes to pot."

Helen Dale admits she is terrified of public speaking. "At my school, they have a rota system where each teacher has to give an assembly once every half-term," says Ms Dale who teaches maths in London. "I start worrying about it a week prior to the assembly, and I hardly sleep the night before.

On the day, I have to wear trousers, so the kids can't see my legs shaking.

I'm confident within the four walls of my classroom, but the minute I step into the hall, I go to pieces."

Preparation is the answer, says Ms More, but she doesn't just mean researching the discussion topic. "Your research should start at the venue," she says. "Find out where you're going to be speaking and go to see it - even if it's somewhere you've been many times before. Where will you be standing? Where will the audience be? Is there anywhere to put your notes, or any visual aids? What kind of technology is available? This will help you plan your speech around your environment."

Next comes careful planning. If you're nervous, it's a good idea to keep it simple, at least until you've got a handful of successful presentations under your belt. You may want to give PowerPoint or overhead projectors a miss in the early days, but there is nothing to stop you using visual aids, such as pictures or other artefacts. This will give your hands something to do, which may help calm your nerves and capture the interest of your audience.

Mr Grimshaw recalls a swimming teacher who used to teach with an inflatable whale under his arm: "The kids would hang on to his every word. They were just dying to see how he was going to bring the whale into action."

When deciding on subject matter, Mr Grimshaw believes it is a good idea for teachers to stick to what they know. "A lot of teachers tend to steer clear of personal stories or anecdotes, as they don't want to reveal too much of themselves, but audiences really warm to this."

Audience involvement is also a winner. At its most simple, this can mean asking a question that requires a "Yes" or "No" answer. If you're feeling brave, selecting audience members to participate in an activity or giving the whole audience a task to perform can be very engaging. And by taking the focus away from yourself can help calm nerves.

Meticulous planning is worthwhile, but reading from a script is not, says Ms More. "You will find it more difficult to make eye contact and make your voice interesting - both crucial for maintaining the attention of your audience." She suggests using a prompt card with just three key ideas on it. Any more could prove distracting.

Mark Griffin, a history teacher from Lancashire, found that practice makes perfect. "It sounds a bit sad, but when I first started out, I used to practise my assemblies in the hall the day before," he says. "I'd get a colleague to listen to tell me if I was speaking loudly and clearly enough.

If I was using any ICT, it also gave me the chance for a dummy run.

Nowadays, I'm a bit more confident, but I still pop into the hall on the morning to check the equipment is working."

Speaking too quickly and quietly is common in less experienced public speakers, but can be easily remedied by making longer pauses between sentences. Ms More also reminds teachers to consider their body language.

"Wear clothes you feel comfortable in. Stand up straight and try to appear confident, even if you're not feeling it. Smiling and using eye contact are particularly important. If you make everyone feel talked to, it's much easier to win over your audience."


* Visit the venue before you plan your speech or presentation

* Keep it simple. Only include ICT resources if you are confident in using them

* Use visual props or artefacts and involve your audience where possible

* Talk about what you know - personal stories or anecdotes work well

* Don't read from a script - use brief notes or prompts

* Practice your speech or presentation at the venue and ask a colleague or friend for feedback

* Test ICT and resources on the day

* Wear comfortable clothes

* Stand tall and confident

* Smile and make eye contact

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