Teaching — not to mention learning — leadership skills can be tough.
Rigid curricular material and high-stakes testing often take precedence over opportunities to help kids develop the abilities that will help them in leadership and in life.
But what if we were to put a greater effort into helping kids work on leadership abilities alongside more traditional subjects like math, science, and English? Educators might just find that by asking their students to give presentations during class time, pupils acquire the talents and qualities that mark strong leaders — from time management to confidence. Here are five skills that students gain from giving presentations — and tips for how they can strengthen their abilities even further.
The best presentations require preparation. For a presentation to be successful, students need to conduct research and practice. And practice. And practice.
You’ve probably given an under-rehearsed presentation; and it probably could have gone better. In all of my less-than-fantastic efforts, the biggest obstacle to success was inadequate preparation. In those cases, I simply ran out of time.
Time management skills are revered in leadership, and these can only truly be learned by practice. The time that goes into preparing a presentation that goes well is substantial; and it starts much earlier than the night before.
By assigning class presentations, teachers can teach students how to organize their time effectively, especially if they are presenting on something they are invested in. No matter the subject, inspiring students to care about the outcome (more than the grades) of a project allows them to set aside the time to create something that works.
If you’ve got to give (or even assign) a presentation, plan it out in a practical and gradual way. Break the assignment down into steps. Plan to finish an outline two weeks before the due date, then take a day or two off, and then begin to rehearse. If you allow for a full week of practice time, you’ll still have a few days left to tweak anything that sounds like it needs work when you read it out loud.
Breaking down the process like this not only allows students to see the direct results of solid time management, but it also teaches them how to work on potentially overwhelming tasks in bite-sized installments.
This section will be short, as it overlaps a lot with time management, but speaking publicly on a subject requires a deep understanding of that topic. Have you ever tried to explain something that you didn’t quite grasp yourself? The results are not pretty. Nothing exposes gaps in knowledge quite like talking about a new topic out loud.
It’s probably unsurprising based on the section above, but dedicating time to preparing is the best way to develop a sense of authority in an area. To sound convincing, you have to have your facts down cold, explain them in a way that makes sense to someone learning the material for the first time, and be prepared to field questions.
In-class presentations offer students an incredible opportunity to fix something I’m willing to call the biggest problem facing public speakers and would-be leaders: disfluencies.
A disfluency is a space-filling noise that may or may not be a word — ummm, uhhh, like, y’know, so, annnd — basically anything that breaks up a normal pattern of speech. It’s what we do when we are thinking and don’t want there to be a long silence. (It’s important to remember, though, that the silence feels longer to the speaker than to the audience — and fillers can be very distracting for listeners!)
Most people aren’t even aware of how often they “like" and “um." Disfluencies (along with upspeak) are some of the biggest problems I see in the classes I teach for professionals. And they’re also some of the easiest to fix. Probably not coincidentally, these utterances are also the problems that most people say they wish they had worked on when they were younger.
One way to get students comfortable with the subject they’re speaking on is — you guessed it — practice. But practicing alone may allow these bad speech habits to become ingrained. If students are rehearsing with partners (something I recommend), then their partners can raise a hand whenever they hear a disfluency. While this may be a slightly abrasive way to work on fillers, it allows speakers to obtain a much deeper awareness of the problem. And that is the first step toward solving it.
After this step, kids should brainstorm ways to banish disfluencies and fillers — by doing things like speaking more slowly, taking controlled pauses, and organizing their speeches logically. These are all ways of banishing the dreaded “um" and, in turn, to appearing (and becoming!) more confident and authoritative in speaking and leadership.
Think of the last conversation you had, or the last class you attended as a student. Did the person you were listening to talk to you or at you? Ideally, to you, but I bet you can think of at least one instance this month in which you’ve been talked at. Think about the way that adults sometimes speak to kids. When they don’t connect, it’s usually because they speak to them like they’re tiny adults. Or imagine a celebrity speaking in a totally unrelatable way on television. They often fail to think about their listeners. Charisma aside — most, if not all, good speakers talk to an audience as opposed to lecturing at an audience. It’s a change that makes all the difference.
By giving in-class presentations, students can receive feedback from the audience in a number of ways. This can be direct — such as listeners commenting on the content and style of a talk — or indirect. It’s important for teachers to facilitate discussions after presentations (what specific features of a talk were exciting, interesting, or fun?).
Indirect feedback, on the other hand, usually has to be interpreted by the person speaking. If audience members are fidgeting, talking, or not paying attention, for example, they probably don’t feel engaged or involved in the presentation. In a classroom context, kids tend to be far more honest than adults; an adult will often feign interest, while a student will show boredom. If it feels like you don’t have command of the room, you may be talking at your listeners rather than tailoring your message to fit them as individuals. Learning how to read an audience, and cultivating the self-awareness to be flexible and accessible in situations like this, are both highly desired leadership skills.
The feeling of delivering a solid presentation is pretty unbeatable. Having the skills to speak persuasively and succinctly is essential to good leadership. The confidence that accompanies those skills is that intangible quality that marks the difference between good and great. Strong leaders aren’t cocky or disrespectful; rather, they are assured in their own beliefs and abilities.
Speakers acquire confidence over time and with practice, just as they woud acquire strength from training at the gym. One good presentation won’t make you a perfect public speaker, just like one run on the treadmill won’t get you ready for a marathon. The ability to practice on a regular basis in a school setting can help students build the confidence to give engaging presentations on a consistent basis. What’s more, as you practice, banish your “ums," and cultivate the other skills mentioned above, confidence is sure to follow.
At school, among familiar faces, the stakes of a presentation are significantly lower than they would be in a professional setting. It’s important to teach confident presentation early, as this can lead to confidence in other contexts, in school and beyond. Like a lot of other things, confidence can be a fake-it-’til-you-make-it endeavor: Convincingly appearing self-assured is what’s important — in a public speaking context, anyway.
Teaching leadership skills can be a daunting task, but school presentations provide great learning opportunities. As experiential exercises, these can also connect lessons at school with lessons that kids can implement in the broader world.
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