Presentation skills are a worry for most people. And, let’s face it…public speaking is a part of life (even if it’s just life in middle school or high school).
In fact, according to a Gallup poll, 40% of Americans indicated public speaking as their biggest fear. Snakes came in first place at 51%.
Now, I speak in front of a classroom full of teenagers five days a week, and my audience is arguably one of the toughest audiences out there, so for me, while I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a room full of snakes (pythons in particular), I don’t mind the thought of presenting or delivering information in front of others.
But based on how often I’ve seen students get up in front of the class in order to present a project, idea, or understanding, only to turn red, mumble through their slide decks, or freeze altogether, I’m betting many of my students would consider their chances with boa constrictors as a presentation looms.
Public speaking and presenting can be tough for anyone.
There are some days when I don’t even I don’t want to have to do it, but regardless of how we feel about it, it’s an integral part of postsecondary life and it’s important for our students to be able to do well and feel confident when speaking in small or large groups, whether they are participating in a discussion or sharing their ideas more formally.
Today we’re going to explore presentation skills, why they’re important, classroom activities that can make everyone feel less miserable, and how to support students who are struggling to overcome their public speaking anxiety. Let’s jump in!
What are Presentation Skills?
First things first, let’s define what I mean by presentation skills.
To define it simply, presentation skills are the ability to effectively communicate a message to an audience. Speaking can be done in a variety of ways, such as through oral presentations, multimedia presentations (which are very popular with students, but more on that later!), and even written reports.
Presentation skills are not just defined by the clarity of the message, but also by the delivery.
Body language, vocal inflection and tone, audience engagement, and creativity are also important nonverbal characteristics and presentation skills.
Why are Presentation Skills Important?
In today’s world, communication skills are more valuable than ever. No matter your students’ path in life, they will need to be able to effectively communicate with others.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of presentation skills, I think about boardroom presentations and closing big deals. Ya know the kind with big posters of arrows going up?
This vision may be a by-product of my age and TV shows in the 80s and 90s, but our world is more connected than ever before, and we’re communicating more than ever in ways that weren’t even possible for my beloved 80s and 90s TV characters.
Our students may never grow up to present in a boardroom, but they’ll likely need to communicate with their own child’s teacher, present at a city council meeting, share their findings with members of their HOA, or even go live on Instagram. We need to make sure our students are prepared for this reality.
What are Some Examples of Presentation Skills?
Before I share some ideas on how to help your students improve their presentation skills, I want to take a moment to look at what good presentation skills look like.
Here are some examples:
- Clear and concise messaging: A good presenter can take complex ideas and explain them in easy to understand, plain language.
- Engaging visuals: Strategic use of visuals is important when public speaking. A good presenter will keep their presentation clean and free from clutter (sorry to Mrs. Smith who had to endure my 7th grade PowerPoint presentations that used all of the transitions…I didn’t know what I was doing).
- Confident body language: Confident body language, including making eye contact, standing up straight, and using gestures to emphasize important points are tell tale signs of a good presenter.
- Effective use of tone and pace: Knowing how to vary one’s tone and pace when presenting is an essential presentation skill. A good presenter knows when to speed up to build excitement and how to use tone and pacing to emphasize important points.
How to Improve Presentation Skills
Now that we’ve looked at some examples of good presentation skills, let’s explore some tips and tricks to help your students improve their own presentation skills.
- Practice, practice, practice: The more your students practice presenting, the more comfortable and confident they will become.
Build in public speaking to your lessons as often as possible. Even if it’s not a full-length presentation, students can practice this presentation skills by engaging in think, pair, shares, chalk talks, gallery walks, etc.
- Focus on the audience: Remind your students that their presentation is not about them, it’s about the audience.
Encourage them to think about what the audience wants to hear and tailor their message accordingly. Passion projects and other activities that allow students choice and authentic engagement can help them focus on the audience rather than the task at hand.
- Use storytelling: People love stories, so storytelling is an essential presentation skill. Encourage your students to use storytelling in their presentations, and demonstrate this skill for them by infusing your own lessons with stories.
This can be as simple as starting with a personal anecdote or using case studies to illustrate their points. Ted Talks make great mentor texts to show students how professional presenters use storytelling to connect to their audience.
- Manage anxiety: It’s natural to feel anxious when presenting, but there are things your students can do to manage their anxiety.
Encourage them to take deep breaths, practice relaxation techniques, and visualize themselves giving a successful presentation.
As students have more experience (and more success!) with public speaking and presenting, their anxiety will decrease. Focus on helping students practice coping skills and manage their anxiety while providing multiple (and fun) opportunities for them to work through their jitters.
- Use visuals: Multimedia presentations are a favorite for our Digital Natives.
Students love to create and embed memes and gifs, videos, songs, and things you and I probably don’t even know exist into their presentations. Creating these things feels natural for most of our students, and visual aids are an important presentation skill, so encourage them to use their existing skills and get creative!
- Get feedback: Feedback is essential to improving presentation skills.
Encourage your students to ask for feedback from their peers or even record themselves and watch it back to see where they can improve. As students are practicing their public speaking skills, have them use Flip to record themselves. Students can post their Flip on the classroom grid (that you have total control over) to provide feedback and encouraging words to their classmates.
Public Speaking Exercises and Games
Okay, so we’re all in agreement that public speaking is tough but necessary and that presentation skills are important. So…how do we make it more fun and less…like a room full of snakes?
There are some really fun (like, legit fun, I know this because high schoolers told me they’re fun and after all, they’re the kings and queens of cool) exercises and games to help practice public speaking skills and shake off the jitters.
Here are some to try:
- Impromptu speeches: Have your students pick a random topic and give a two-minute impromptu speech on it. This will help them practice thinking on their feet and organizing their thoughts quickly.
- Campfire story: You start a story. Something like, “Two friends are hiking in the woods when they lose track of the trail…” and each student takes turns adding to it. The last student must provide a satisfying ending to the story.
To lessen student anxiety, this works in pairs and groups of three, too!
- Photo story: Show students a photo online (the New York Times Learning Network has a great section for this type of exercise) without any context. Students will share what they think the backstory is, who the people are, their dreams, their motivations, conflicts, and anything else that’ll tell a compelling story about them.
- What grinds my gears: Have students take the spotlight to share about their biggest pet peeves. What really grinds their gears?
- Gush about a basic object: On the opposite end of the spectrum from sharing about what annoys them, have students pick a basic, everyday object they’re indifferent about. Something like a blender, pencil, a chair in the classroom. The challenge is they have to develop a speech to deliver in which they absolutely gush about that object. What makes it so great? This particular exercise really challenges students to use body language and voice to accomplish the task.
- Minute to Win It debates: Want to create a little friendly competition in your public speaking practice? Minute to Win It improv debates will up the ante for your students. The gist is this: Students are given one minute to plead their case in front of the class on a topic given to them only when the timer starts. The audience votes for the best case, so their arguments better be good.
- Commercial: Students can make a commercial for an object of their choosing. This allows them to be serious or playful, to bring in props and other visual aids, and to practice with body language and vocal inflection. This exercise works well for groups, which can really help ease student anxiety when speaking in front of the class.
- Balderdash: Students write made up words on slips of paper. Place the slips with the made up words in a bin for students to blindly grab from. Taking turns pulling a slip from the bin, students must on the fly create a definition for that word and share it with the class.
I hope you’ve been inspired to bring some fun ways to practice important presentation and public speaking skills into your curriculum. The speaking and listening standards in the ELA curriculum present a unique challenge for us to prepare students for life after high school while still honoring that public speaking is difficult (and downright terrifying for some). We know our students can do difficult things, and we can help them do so with confidence!
Hey, if you loved this post, you’ll want to download a FREE copy of my guide to streamlined grading.
I know how hard it is to do all the things as an English teacher, so I’m excited to share some of my best strategies for reducing the grading overwhelm.