On the case of talking heads

27th October 2006 at 01:00
The American stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld once commented on a poll which found that the greatest fear of all is that of public speaking.

Fear of death, by contrast, comes in at number five. "This means," says Jerry, "that the average person at a funeral is five times more likely to want to be in the coffin than giving the eulogy."

For school leaders, speaking goes with the territory. It's not just big events like prize-giving. Many occasions count as public speaking: staff briefings, reporting to governors and assembly, of which many otherwise ambitious and aspiring colleagues are as mortally afraid as Mr Seinfeld would have us believe.

But speech-making is only part of the story. What we're discussing here is what is traditionally thought of as the headteacher's "air of authority" - the impression of being confident and comfortable in any setting.

Pat Langham, head of Wakefield girls' high school and a regular speaker at conferences, says: "When the head walks in the room people need to know why they're spending all that money. There has to be authority there. It doesn't need to be loud, but there should be something that inspires."

What does that mean for would-be leaders? Can the trick be learnt on the way up the ladder? It's true that all teachers are performers, but classrooms are private spaces, and it's a mistake to believe that a commanding presence in class translates easily into a more public arena.

For Ms Langham, it's the headteacher's job to help colleagues out of their shells, and it's part of the process of sharing responsibility.

"I think you should delegate the public persona," she says. "So when it comes to meetings with parents, I try to train other colleagues to do them.

They gain some kudos and it adds to their authority."

Not that Ms Langham believes in plunging unwilling people in at the deep end. "If they're uncertain, I'll make sure it's very scripted and structured, and I'll be there with them nodding and joining in if necessary," she says. "Then I'll gradually remove those supports."

It's valuable professional training, she says. And as a speaker much in demand beyond her own school, she knows what she's talking about.

"If you can take an assembly of 1,000 people by yourself, you can manage just about anything" she says. "At least you can spot who's talking and who's gone to sleep."

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