Students perform on stage as part of the Ford's theatre oratory festival. Five girls stand in front holding each other's hands above their heads. A dozen student kneel behind them.
Photo by Gary Erskine.

Public-Speaking Strategies for Success: Facing Fears with Ford’s Theatre Experts

5 min read

Editor’s Note: This post was written before schools across America were closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To access Ford’s Theatre oratory resources that students and educators can utilize while at home, click here.

I can survive crowded malls, being trapped in an elevator for 30 minutes in Istanbul, tackling a 50-foot-high rope course, and even being tripped by a black snake as it coiled around my ankles. But public speaking? Nothing quite compares. Can the audience tell what’s going on inside my head or with my body? How will I ever get to that stage with these knocking knees? 

As a teacher and more specifically a teacher of oratory, I had to figure out how to help my students overcome this fear that 75 percent of all Americans experience. I thought a lot about my own journey. How did I grow from my own intense fear of speaking to a large crowd to actually looking forward to and seeking out these opportunities? How have I moved my students from those who avoid eye contact when I mention that we will be doing public speaking, to those who beg to jump up and speak their mind? 

These are my principles for overcoming my own and my students’ fears about public speaking:

1. Begin with a Small Audience

For students experiencing extreme anxiety, I recommend beginning practice with a partner or a veteran oratory mentor. When ready, they then move to a small group of four or five, and finally to the whole class or an oratory group. Throughout the process, students gain the confidence needed to deliver speeches to increasingly larger and larger groups. We also scale up the types of events from intimate family performances at a local venue to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking out over the reflecting pool toward our nation’s capital.

2. Believe in the Words you Speak

Whether a student is delivering an historical speech or one of their own, students must feel passionately about the topic. If the topic doesn’t matter to the orator, it won’t matter to the audience. My students have a variety of cultural backgrounds and they have all found connection with historical speeches. 

Take Frederick Douglass for example. Noah, a student I’ve worked with for two years, is a storyteller. When he delivered Frederick Douglass’ The Church and Prejudice, it was a speech that allowed Noah to demonstrate his art of telling a good story. Shabad, another student of mine, felt strongly about women’s rights, so Douglass’s Emancipation of Women, with words nearly 150 years old, resonated with her beliefs today. 

3. Know your Speech

Students must feel comfortable with the speech they are delivering. In order to do this, orators must understand both the content and the context of a speech.

Favour, one of my three-year veteran orators, chose Frederick Douglass’s What to a Slave is the Fourth of July. As an immigrant, her perspective on U.S. history was informed by spending the first half of her life in Nigeria and differed slightly from her U.S.-born peers. Researching the content and context of the speech was essential before she could even begin with performance techniques. The outcome? She set the bar high at the 2019 Frederick Douglass Oratorical Contest. 

4. Have a Game Plan for Delivery

Every word spoken, every move made must be planned, intentional and deliberate. Students are taught podium points, nine vocal and physical elements of effective public speaking. 

A big part of this game plan involves students annotating their speech for delivery. Students decide when to pause and for how long; what words to emphasize, voice inflections; and what gestures will support the meaning behind the words.

5. Mistakes are Going to Happen

A teacher sits at a classroom table speaking with four middle-school students.
Joyce Erb-Appleman and her students.

Having a plan helps overcome that fear of, “What if I forget what I was going to say?” There’s an art to covering up mistakes, so I help students learn how to cover them up. To ease their anxiety, I remind students that no one knows what you were going to say, and no one has a copy of your speech in front of them either. Know your sticky points. If it doesn’t compromise the integrity of your speech, just leave it out and go on. Be comfortable with pauses. Take a breath, look at your audience or look down while you’re collecting your thoughts. Whichever you choose, it will look intentional. That second or two you just bought for yourself is often enough time to remember what to do next.

6. Warm and Cool Feedback

Orators need to know what they do well (warm feedback) and where they need to improve (cool feedback). I remind students this is their speech. They take full ownership and decide what changes, if any, to make, but they must graciously consider all feedback. Just as each orator depends upon feedback, they in turn must be able to give it, gently, but explicitly. If an orator is going to point out a flaw, a suggestion needs to follow. For instance, during oratory, Claudia stated to Talia, “While your voice was strong, you might want to consider speaking more slowly when pronouncing ’s’ sounds.”

“The written word cannot be spoken nor delivered with any meaning without it first being understood by the orator.

In my classroom, my challenge is to create a safe and reflective environment. Students learn to exchange ideas and listen respectfully to each other. They learn this journey is not just about overcoming a fear of public speaking but also about speaking up in general. They learn to express their ideas and passions with eloquence. As students practice performance techniques, they gain the confidence needed to speak in most any situation. 

I think it goes without saying that practice, practice and more practice is essential to successful public speaking. While I can give a dozen more tips, ultimately the more I speak, the more relaxed I find myself. The more you and your students speak, the more relaxed and confident you will feel too.

Joyce Erb-Appleman is a graduate of The Ohio State University, Walsh University, and Coppin State and a National Board Certified Teacher. She is currently an Instructional Lead Teacher of reading and social studies in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland. As a National Oratory Teaching Fellow for Ford’s Theatre, she has worked with hundreds of middle-school students, guiding them to gain the skill and confidence to successfully speak in public.

Joyce Erb-Appleman is a graduate of The Ohio State University, Walsh University, and Coppin State and a National Board Certified Teacher.

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