10 Ways to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills – Tips for Teens
June 5, 2023
If public speaking causes your palms to sweat or your voice to quaver, you’re not the only one. Simply adding to a student-led discussion used to make my heart pound so loudly I couldn’t hear my thoughts. Standing in front of the class made my face turn bright red. I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, yet most people can’t avoid public speaking altogether. High school courses often require project presentations, and some classes require oral debates. Extracurriculars, too, often require various forms of speechmaking. The team captain of the diving team will inspire teammates with a rousing pep-talk, not a mumbling one. A shy student perfectly equipped for the role of class secretary may have trouble getting elected without giving a convincing speech. Later on, college courses can require students to give an hour-long thesis presentation. All of these tasks will drive teens to attempt to improve their public speaking skills.
Confident public speaking will come in handy at all stages of life, whether you’re interviewing for a job, making a toast at your brother’s wedding, or accepting an Oscar. Luckily, public speaking isn’t an innate gift that only a select few are born with. Think of public speaking as a craft you can hone, or a sport you can train for, using simple, effective techniques. As a high school student, you can begin by mastering these 10 public speaking skills.
10 Ways to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills
1) Know Your Subject
To get familiar with your subject, begin by practicing your speech alone. While this may sound counterintuitive, speaking aloud to yourself will allow you to memorize your material without worrying about presentation. You may notice what needs to be added and deleted. You’ll see if the structure of your speech works, if the beginning sounds inviting, and if the ending finishes on a strong note.
As you practice and revise your speech, you will naturally memorize it. Then you can improvise. The ability to improvise comes in handy if your audience asks questions, or if another type of disruption occurs. Improvising also allows for paraphrasing, which makes for more natural-sounding language in the moment, as compared to the formal way a text gets written.
2) Rehearse in Front of Others
Once you know your topic inside out, practice in front of a friend or family member. This person (someone you trust) will help you identify weak or confusing points. They may tell you where they got bored, or where they disagreed. While helping you strengthen your argument, they’ll also give you a heightened sense of self-awareness. This self-awareness will make you more sensitive to your delivery. You may notice strange ticks you don’t normally have, like wild hand gestures, or extra “ums” inflecting your speech.
Additionally, this micro-audience will give you an indication of your own level of comfortability. If one person makes you feel nervous, you’ll pay extra attention to combatting stage fright.
3) Time Yourself
Public speaking assignments will involve an allotted time in which you’re asked to make your speech. This may be anything from five minutes to a half hour. Timing yourself while rehearsing will give you an idea of how long your speech will take, and whether you need to shorten or lengthen it. Timing yourself also allows you to focus on another aspect of public speaking—pacing.
Most students speed up while speaking to an audience, due to nerves. If your speech is shorter than you thought, you may not need to add more content but rather slow down your pace. Time yourself a second time, and pay particular attention to the pauses you add. Give yourself time to take a deep breath between paragraphs. Every couple of sentences, pause to glance up at your imaginary audience. When you give the real speech, these built-in breaks will allow your audience to follow your argument better.
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4) Videotape Yourself
Videotape yourself after you’ve timed yourself. While you can do both at the same time on a smartphone, I recommend doing these steps consecutively, because they target different goals. Videotaping yourself will help see your body language from an outside perspective. Nervous habits can appear in many forms: twirling hair, bopping your head, looking off to the side, biting your lips, squeezing your hands into fists… Once you’ve identified your particular ticks, relax your shoulders. Stand up straight, and take a deep breath.
Now, give your speech again. Monitor yourself to see if you have the urge to move, and when you do, do it purposefully. Great speakers rarely hold still. However, they incorporate movement into their speech in a way that looks controlled and natural. These deliberate gestures draw the audience in. Try taking a step forward. Open your arms to about shoulder-width, palms up, then clasp your hands again. Pause and smile.
5) Improve One Aspect at a Time
At this point, we’ve discussed four key tips on public speaking for teens. The next tip involves learning how to incorporate these tips into your practice until each becomes natural. The trick? Work on each tip separately. The main reason why public speaking intimidates so many of us is that we simply have too much to think about. Words, body language, pacing, humor, bright lights, more words, raised hands—it all becomes too much.
Instead, practice mastering each component of public speaking separately. Once one aspect becomes natural to you, move on to the next. While doing this, you’ll be able to identify your weak points more accurately and know what to spend extra time working on.
6) Get Inspired
For a deeper dive into developing public speaking skills, take cues from experts. Consider attending a local event where someone is speaking. For a more creative venue, see a comedy show or a theatre performance. Note what you like—and what you don’t like. (Not all public speakers are persuasive ones.) What gestures would you feel comfortable borrowing? What makes the audience listen closely, or laugh?
For public speaking examples closer to home, search the internet for inspiring talks. TED Talks include a whole range of topics and lengths. For example, I find this talk on the power of introverts particularly compelling. Despite being a self-identified introvert, the speaker, Susan Cain, pulls off a warm, witty speech about the strength of quiet people, proving that the best public speakers don’t have to be loud or outgoing. Another speaker, Adora Svitak, was only twelve when she gave this speech on what adults can learn from kids.
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7) Switch It Up
Another way to get comfortable with public speaking involves distancing yourself from your material. I don’t mean to forget about your speech, but rather, broaden your repertoire. Recite a rhyming poem or a tongue twister. Read aloud from your history textbook in a different accent. These activities will make students more aware of things like rhythm, pitch, intonation, and clarity. In fact, joining the school drama club will certainly help improve public speaking for teens. Sometimes it’s easier to speak with conviction when the words aren’t yours. Taking on the persona of a fictional character can bring a shy student out of their shell, and make the act of public speaking fun.
8) Make Notecards
Memorizing your speech doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use notecards. Having a set of talking points can help you stay on track, in the event that your mind goes blank in front of your audience. Try to keep the cards simple. For example, each card can represent one paragraph and contain keywords, to jog your memory. These cards can also hold hard-to-remember facts and figures.
For teens who feel especially nervous about public speaking, the notecards can also serve as a prop to simply hold on to, to keep from fidgeting. If you watched the TED Talk by Adora Svitak, you’ll see that the paper she holds certainly does not diminish her delivery, nor make her look less prepared.
On the topic of props, let’s consider PowerPoint presentations. Like notecards, these slides should remain minimal. If presented with both written and spoken words, most audience members will subconsciously choose to read, and begin to tune out your speech. Instead, rely on images—pictures, diagrams, and charts. Relevant images will aid visual learners and grab the audience’s attention, enhancing your speech, rather than distracting from it.
9) Be Yourself
Obviously, this is easier said than done. Most of us don’t go around holding forth on a subject without allowing others to jump in. So how can you be yourself while making a public speech? Consider incorporating a personal story. In Susan Cain’s TED Talk, she begins by describing her first time at summer camp. The personal anecdote creates a connection between Cain and her audience.
However, sometimes personal stories aren’t appropriate in academic speeches. In this case, consider adding your personality. This may be a touch of humor or a certain style to the delivery. Cain pauses after making certain statements, indicating there’s irony in the situations she describes. Adora Svitak, on the other hand, has a particular diction to her public speaking, which brings out her precocious personality.
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10) Consider Your Audience
When writing a paper, you’re often told to consider your audience. So too must you consider your audience when delivering a speech. Think about the amount of knowledge your classmates will have on the subject, and adjust your speech accordingly. Likewise, pay attention to the audience’s comprehension as you go. If you’ve memorized your speech and practiced making eye contact, you’ll be able to pause and ask if anyone needs clarification without getting derailed. Eye contact can also help your audience feel more involved on a subconscious level.
If the setting allows, consider inviting your audience to participate more actively. Depending on the level of formality, you may be able to call on a classmate for an opinion or answer. Small interactions engage an audience and make everyone more invested in close listening. Finally, consider leaving a few minutes for a question and answer period at the end of your speech. This can lead to clarity and insightful conversations.
How to Improve Public Speaking Skills – Additional Resources
For more on public speaking skills and other related links, consider checking out the following blogs and resources: