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The Power of Public Speaking

The Power of Public Speaking

There is nothing more compelling than an excellent public speech.

Over the course of the last two weeks, every student from Kindergarten to Grade 12 has prepared and presented a public speech, and I have had the distinct pleasure of observing many of them.

Speaking in front of a crowd is not easy, and is listed as one of the greatest stressors for a significant percentage of the population.  However, we know one thing to be true: the more you practice, the better you get. As is the case with any skill set, the keys to improvement are repetition and coaching.

In this time of accelerated change in the world, we often make reference to the incredible benefits of "soft skills", and public speaking is a prime example.  Transferable skills such as preparation, planning, rehearsal, research, managing nervousness, reading an audience, adjusting to your audience, making last minute changes, failing, succeeding..... are all good examples of a transferable skill set that is beneficial for students.

Personally, I have had some tremendously successful speeches, and I have had my fair share of stinkers.  When I prepare a public presentation, I attempt to marry what I want to say with what the audience wants to hear.  Improving your public speaking skills is not always linear or predictable. Sometimes this is easy, like in a victory speech.  Speeches about unfortunate events or delivering bad news are much more challenging.

The Graduates "This I Believe" speeches are a culminating activity in which each Grade 12 student presents a 5-minute speech about what they believe.  This is a wonderful opportunity for these young adults to reflect on their first 17-18 years, and share personal insights and opinions. 

These speeches were very well done and a joy to listen to. We were very pleased with the gratitude expressed about parents and life, as well as, the excitement and optimism about their years ahead.

During the public speaking rehearsals in the Grade 3 class some of the teachers had fellow students record the speeches on iPads, and then asked the students to observe the recordings with a partner to watch themselves and give each other feedback. What a great idea, I wish I had that opportunity in elementary school!

One of the most compelling public speeches that I have ever observed was by Bill Clinton here in Kelowna about 10 years ago. Recognized as one of the best public orators of his generation, he was masterful. Although he was admittedly jet lagged from a busy campaign tour (for Hillary), he captivated his audience with personal anecdotes and a little self-deprecating humour, which engaged us further. Telling good stories can be very effective because they can be humanizing and are usually original. 

As I research Harvard University's Extension School, they list some other excellent points that we share with our students to give their speeches more impact.

  • Try and know your audience, - the speech is about them, not you.
  • Let your personality come through
  • Use humour, but be careful not to offend...
  • Hook your audience with a bold fact or interesting anecdote at the beginning
  • Use your hands and voice effectively (alter volume, pitch, tone)

As always, I welcome your comments.

With warm regards,

Chris Grieve
Head of School

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