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Public Speaking | Mary Biever | One Writing Mother
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4-H and Presentation Success

One of the most important lessons I work to teach public speaking students is flexibility. They need to change on a dime and keep going.

This week, when Vanderburgh’s 4-H Tech Club team rehearsed to give presentations at a state meeting, I distracted them during rehearsals. There were times I walked across the back of the room, clapped my hands, jumped, or gave them funny looks while speaking.

It’s a deliberate technique I use while coaching speakers to give them experience maintaining their focus during presentations. Each presentation experience presents its own challenges, and we frequently cannot anticipate what those challenges will be until they happen.  Learning to maintain focus prepares speakers for unexpected challenges.

These kids were not only flexible but found ways to solve problems. When we arrived at the hotel the night before presentations, we tried to figure out where we could do a final rehearsal. One of the youngest team members scoped the front of the hotel, talked to the hotel clerk, and got permission for us to use a meeting room free of charge that night for a rehearsal. As luck would have it, the room they rehearsed in that night was the same size as the one they presented in the next morning. As team members held computer parts and demonstrated their use, they found ways to help each other and turn equipment to give a better presentation.

The team members adapted what they said and when they said it whenever needed. They listened to our suggestions and found ways to improve their presentation but still keep it as their own and not ours. As slideshow photos were switched and timings tweaked, the team kept their focus. If they felt stress in those final adjustments, they didn’t show it.

As this team rehearsed, I didn’t anticipate when we got to the actual room that the setup we had carefully prepared would be completely flipped. Team members used to showing something on their right had to switch to their left, and vice versa. When we got to the room and realized they would have to reverse everything they had practiced, I said nothing but mentally kicked myself for not having them practice both ways.

However, they made it work and took the switch in stride. After a quick rehearsal with the new setup, they began the presentations, giving the same demonstration to 4 different groups, to a total of 110 adults.

No one in the audiences would have guessed they had flipped their presentation.

What was their secret to success? 4-H had prepared them well. They all had several years of experience giving demonstrations at the county level. Three of the five team members had also competed at state 4-H demonstration contests. One team member had competed in state level judging contests.

Most remarkably, they have had those experiences at such young ages.

The Tech presentation team ranged in ages from twelve to sixteen. I wonder how they will use those experiences later in life.

They give me hope for all our futures. And they remind me that when we set a bar of high expectations, and it is met, great things happen.


Top 4 Tips to More Class Engagement

michele blanchfield helping studentphoto © 2011 RTLibrary | more info (via: Wylio)
When you teach a group of students, how do you help them engage in the subject matter so they will use it after the class is ended? For 14 years, I’ve taught adults how to better use computers, teaching subjects from Excel to mail merges to email management to social media.

I’ve learned the more I facilitate instead of teach, the more they learn and more likely they are to use it after the fact. How can I help them engage more in class?

  1. Ask an icebreaker. Ask your audience a question related to the subject matter, often, what’s the most important thing they want to learn in this area or what they already do in this area. This begins the process of audience ownership – they will own what they learn. It helps me gauge what we cover so they get what they want, and it begins building my relationship with them.
  2. Ask simple questions and get tougher. Whenever possible, ask the audience questions and pull from them. If you start with simple questions they can answer, they will grow in confidence and attempt to answer the tougher ones. This helps you gauge what they know so you can modify the class to the real level of what they need. It also begins the good habit of more audience participation.
  3. Expect different learning styles. People learn by listening, seeing, and working hands on – at different levels. Give them the flexibility to do what helps them learn best, whether it’s fidgeting with a pen or tuning you out while they work ahead. Make sure your content is available in auditory, visual, and kinesthetic forms so they can do what’s needed to learn the most from your time together.
  4. Watch the whites of their eyes.  When I started teaching, I was determined to cover A-Z in every class session, no matter what. Sometimes, we raced through tough stuff so I could say we hit everything. Now, I watch their eyes. With tough tech topics, subject saturation sometimes hits. When the glazed look falls over their eyes, it’s time to shift gears and slow down.  Take a break, tell a story, or begin a hands on exercise. The shift in gears will give their brains a chance to absorb what’s already been covered. It might be time to stop and figure out a different way to approach what’s already covered. Students who get lost or confused begin to build a wall with me. If I don’t reconnect with them and re-inspire their confidence, they will leave the class convinced the material is so over their head they won’t try to use it.

Good teachers give their students lots of quality information. Great teachers inspire them to use it. Empowering your audience so they leave a class feeling excited and inspired to try new things yields better long-term results.

If you teach, what helps you engage better with students? If you’ve taken classes, what can teachers do to help you engage and learn more in class time?

How to React to a Shooting

Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu speech announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the best impromptu speech I’ve seen. I show this video to every impromptu speech class I lead.

Setting for the speech: Kennedy was on a campaign stop in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968.  He was scheduled to speak to a minority audience, and local police asked him to cancel his speech after the assassination because they feared a riot.  Kennedy refused.  You will hear when he learns the audience does not know King has been shot. Kennedy’s speech prevented the feared riot.:

What makes Kennedy’s response great?

  1. Tell the bad news. He told what was known. Kennedy did not blame or suggest suspects.
  2. Acknowledge the horror. He acknowledged the grief and shock his audience felt upon hearing the news.
  3. Share personal experience. He shared his experiences and response 5 years earlier to his brother’s assassination.
  4. Draw on education and training. Classically educated, Kennedy quoted the play Agamemnon, by the Greek tragedian, Aeschylus:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Kennedy’s speech concludes with a call to wisdom – to understanding.

Instead of a call to action.  Let law enforcement find who committed the crime, why they did it, and use that knowledge to better prevent future shootings.

As one out of many in the general public, my job is the same as Kennedy’s audience.

  • Remember that our Declaration of Independence declares our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We all have those rights – not just our friends but our enemies.
  • Disagree with others on matters of substance but honor their dignity.
  • Remind our friends and others of the gift of human dignity.  Tragedies happen when we forget inalienable rights and human dignity.

Tragedies and senseless shootings continue. Two months after this speech, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. His speech on reacting to violence can still teach and inspire us today.

I doubt I’ll ever personally stop a shooter. Nevertheless, if I heed Kennedy’s call to wisdom, perhaps I can help build a stronger culture of respect for others.

When the temperature in the cooking pot lowers, there’s less chance of a boil over. Will you join me?

Chicken Dance Speech Class

The chicken dance inspired me! I was teaching a new public speaking class to teens and wanted a different icebreaker to begin the year.

The first day of class, all chairs and tables were pushed to the sides of the room. All students formed a big circle but didn’t know why.  Then I began to play the chicken dance – telling them the first class assignment was dancing the chicken dance. Some were more reluctant than others. For the fun of it, I wore a big, bright yellow outfit.

After we did it, I had them help me go through the steps of the chicken dance. When do we flap, and when did we wiggle? When we had the steps broken down, I gave a mock demonstration speech on the chicken dance, after which we danced to it one more time.

After we finished, I asked, “How many think starting a speech class with the chicken dance is stupid?”

All agreed.  So I continued, “Did anyone feel stupid doing the chicken dance in front of everyone else here?”

A few admitted to it. So I continued, “Fine. You have just done the dumbest thing you will do all year in speech class. Now we can get to the business of speaking in public and doing it well.”

I hate writing or speech classes where students spend more time studying the theory or art of speaking or writing than they do in the actual writing and speaking. The best way to write well is to write often. The best way to be a good public speaker is to speak publicly and often.

In every speaking or writing class, the bulk of our time is spent speaking and writing. We cover a little theory, practice, and then analyze what we learned. Finally, I encouraged them outside of class to read and explore their interests. 

We don’t teach kids musical instruments by having them study theory and occasionally experiment with the real instrument.  We do encourage them to practice daily and see incremental improvement over time.  When kids learn to swim, we don’t have them sit poolside to study books or videos; we take them to the shallow end, have them get in the water, and encourage them to discover what it feels like to move in the water.

The same should be true of the written and spoken word.