Public Speaking

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Speaking in public generates enormous fear in most people. Nearly everyone dreads getting up in front of an audience and being judged.

So, learning public speaking presents an ideal opportunity in education, a kind of boot camp for facing seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Planning and practice, humility and patience, self-forgiveness and bravado --- all are part of the lesson plan.

When I began teaching public speaking to teenagers, I thought of it as a useful skill. It quickly became a template for tackling all hard work.

By age 12, all kids can figure out new skills through trial and error. It's the stuff of growing up. Public speaking is no different, except that adults have lost that agility for learning and they charge performance with stigma.

First we build proficiency at memorizing, stage presence, eye contact. Everyone is lousy at first. The initial assignments are simple: introduce a classmate, explain how to make cookies. The group listens, commiserates, and importantly, applauds. Applause is required, as is attentive listening.


As the weeks go by, the assignments become more complex: review a new movie, argue for a fine for not recycling. The group critiques each speech. They all are giving speeches too, so everyone comprehends mercy.

Public speaking becomes "what you do," not a terror. So, students dig in and improve. Then, miraculously, the skills begin to transfer to other areas. Students begin to feel they can write, too. They will try the potter's wheel or Spanish. The model is "give it a try and see how it flies". Criticism isn't lethal.

And so, public speaking is a model for approaching every other challenge. Students learn to get in there and do it. Forget the drama. Follow the form. Work your way up to competence under the stage lights.

Adults could do this, too.

With a Perspective, I'm Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a teacher and head of school at REAL School Marin in Larkspur.