8 Things to STOP Doing When Teaching Public Speaking

We all know “good” and “bad” speakers when we see them, but it's shocking how often we teachers either ignore bad habits, don't explicitly teach good habits, or accidentally reinforce bad speaking with the types of speaking we assign.

IN OUR DEFENSE, speaking in all its forms is the category of English class that is usually given the least attention in teacher-ed programs, so when we attempt to teach it ourselves, we have to either self-teach best practices or fall back on what we remember from our own days in grades K-12... but some of those actions belong in the past.

(I should also mention that some of these are things I learned the hard way, so by no means do I claim to be a perfect teacher! Learn from my mistakes to save yourself some stress.)

Though there are always exceptions to these suggestions, here are some situations that English teachers should seriously think twice about before we assign and assess speaking.
STOP: Drawing names randomly from a hat/jar to go first
This method is one of the fastest ways to add stress to a speech or presentation, and it's totally unnecessary. I like to share a Signup Sheet (usually as a Google doc) so that students can request the order/day when they will present. They're more prepared, there's less time wasted transitioning (“who wants to go next?”), and everyone is happy.

I know some teachers value improv skills or the “critical thinking” of talking on the fly, but for most speech assessments, undue stress is added and confidence levels shot when they don't know when they will have to speak. Students walk away with the feeling of “Whew, so glad that's over” instead of “Wow, I want to do that again”.

STOP: Requiring a rigid posture
Yes, good speakers are at least somewhat professional, with decent posture (no slouch) and no fidgeting. However, watch any TED talk, and you'll notice that the best presenters have what I call a “conversational stance”, one that is open and inviting instead of stiff. Teach THAT style of standing or walking instead of a robotic posture meant for statues.

Plus, I like telling marching band stories of why tuba players learn not to lock their knees. Stiff posture helps no one!

Let Amy Cuddy teach your students about power posing in her TED Talk, or check out my set of TED guided notes to learn more about speaking from the experts!

STOP: Allowing terrible eye contact
I know that making eye contact is hard. It requires either full/partial memorization OR an ability to go off-script successfully. But it's totally acceptable to enforce eye contact in your rubric (alongside vocals and posture). Having good eye contact means that you are prepared and comfortable, if not confident, and showing up prepared for a speech is, in my opinion, a habit worth fighting for.

One trick is that I ask students to pick strategic sentences in their speeches to highlight and memorize, so that they can look up in the moments that matter the most.

STOP: Trusting students to practice at home
Some students will practice in front of a mirror like you're recommending, but most won't, and the worst part is that some students will sit in your class and have good intentions… before going home and not doing it after all.

At least a little bit of their practice needs to be in the classroom, where you can give them early feedback (and THEY can get comfortable in the actual setting). The most transformative changes have happened when I catch a student swaying, getting nervous, or curling inward, and I can safely correct them before any grading is happening.

STOP: Only practicing while sitting
It makes no sense to give a speech standing but only prepare by sitting at a desk and mouthing the words numbly as you read the script “out loud”. Students need to be forced to stand, project their voices, and fumble with their note cards (or visuals).

One favorite activity I stole from MY high school speech and debate team is to have students face the wall and talk to IT, sometimes even taping the speech to the wall to practice keeping your chin up and eyes forward. (The whole class lines the room and does this simultaneously, so it's less weird than it sounds!)

STOP: Allowing "Death by PowerPoint"
Okay, there are SOME scenarios in which text-dense slides might be appropriate… but for the most part, allowing a bullet-list PPT as a visual aid is the worst type of clutch possible, one that creates posture problems (like not facing the audience), ruins eye contact (dependent on the screen), and creates boredom for the audience. The crowd's attention is wavering between the speaker and reading along. Plus, some students just read their slides aloud for the presentation, which in my view does NOT count as a speech. Students have heard me say before, “This is a speech, not a read-aloud!”

I'm training students to make more image-heavy slides that support your content without creating problems. Students make these when they create their own mock TED talks. Get a visual aids lesson here.

STOP: Permitting unenthusiastic vocals
Most of us know not to be Ben Stein-level of monotone, but few teachers call out their students when they look bored or poker-faced while speaking. I've recently started swapping out the word “passionate” for the word “enthusiastic” when describing how students should appear, and that is working better so far. If their voices and faces don't exude (or don't fake) enthusiasm, then we won't feel it, either.

I told one group of students that they'd know they were being expressive enough if their cheeks and/or eyebrows were moving. Works every time!

STOP: Forgetting to celebrate afterward
You can praise ALL students for the things they DID do well instead of just focusing on the negatives. Print these certificates here, or get free data tracking sheets here.

Any other ideas to add to the list? Tell me in the comments!

1 comment

  1. Your insight and resources were great! Thanks! Now, off to my TPT account to download them!