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How to help your students with public speaking confidence: 3 tips

How to help your students with public speaking confidence: 3 tips

As teachers, it can be hard to put ourselves in our students’ shoes when it comes to fear of presenting and public speaking. After all, we do it all day! While a fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias, it’s easy for us to underestimate the anxiety that many of our students feel when we ask them to present and speak in front of their peers. We may ask ourselves—what are they so afraid of?

When I asked them this same question, most of my students gave similar answers.

  • The majority said they were afraid of making an embarrassing mistake

  • Others of forgetting what to say

  • Some said they feared nobody would care about what they were saying

  • While others felt uncomfortable with being the center of attention.

Of course, these fears are likely amplified by the fact that these students are speaking in their non-native language, and might not have the skills required to ad lib or gracefully correct a mistake. Over the years I’ve seen my share of sweaty brows, shaking hands, and unsteady voices. I’ve also seen every single one of the aforementioned fears come true—on multiple occasions. Sometimes a mispronunciation results in unintended hilarity, or a presentation finishes and is met with disinterested, blank stares.

Why do we subject them to such torture?

Whether or not they willingly admit it, most students inherently know why it’s important for them to practice public speaking. Most of my students tell me early on that they’re studying English in order to improve their job prospects, attend university, build a career in an English-speaking country or with a multinational company. As teachers, we’re responsible for giving them the tools to work their public speaking muscle, and help them to build up confidence speaking English that they will take with them long after their courses have finished.

These are the three major tips I have learned over the years.

1. Give sufficient practice time

The most common thing that my students said improved their confidence was having sufficient time to practice. They want to rehearse, ensuring that they don’t stumble over any pronunciations, forget any information, or misunderstand the required language. Sufficient practice time also means you can give them feedback or correct any obvious errors. This is very helpful for them—but only up to a point. Just as teachers, we know that no lesson is perfect and no lesson is going to go exactly as planned, we need to ensure that our students understand this about presentations. Assigning a presentation at least one day in advance can help calm students, as they’re able to spend as much time outside of class as they personally feel is necessary to practice.

2. Provide ample (and specific) feedback

Objective, specific feedback is another important tool that we can use as teachers to help students gain confidence when public speaking. If students feel as though they have something to gain from giving the presentation, and they can then apply that information to their next presentation, they may experience the same fear—though feel more able to face it. Using a rubric so they can see specific areas to improve is useful. Teacher comments are also beneficial—the more specific, the better. Combined with frequent presentations and opportunities for public speaking, both formal and informal, students will be able to build on previous feedback and increase their confidence each time they speak.

3. Create a positive atmosphere

Finally, the factor that I believe is the most important but least obvious to students, is having a classroom atmosphere and culture that is accepting, supportive, and respectful. Teachers need to set the tone and the expectation that any display of disrespect during another student’s presentation will not be tolerated. This includes ensuring attention is on the speaker and there is no cellphone use, side conversation, or other distraction taking place. Teaching and reminding students of active listening skills, including asking thoughtful questions at the end of a presentation, is important in this context. Oftentimes students have chosen a topic they are passionate about, or have spent a great deal of time and effort researching, and half-hearted applause and no follow-up questions from peers can be very discouraging. Finally, it’s important to frequently emphasize that everyone in that room is there to learn, and while some may speak more naturally or confidently than others, everybody makes mistakes.

A student once said public speaking and presenting is like ripping off a band-aid – it can be painful and unpleasant, but it has to be done. By keeping in mind both the specific anxieties that students are experiencing and the strategies that can be used to quell these anxieties, we as teachers can help students feel more comfortable speaking in front of their peers. When students see presentations as an opportunity to showcase their hard work and show off their knowledge and passions, rather than as a painful but necessary hurdle to overcome, everybody wins.

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