Public Speaking: A Guide

(1) Lecturing

Open with something that gets the audience’s attention and secures their engagement. This could be a question, a poll (“raise your hand if…”), or an anecdotal story. Try to avoid clichéd openers like quotes (“Winston Churchill famously said …”) or broad, sweeping statements (“Throughout history…”), which sound fairly mechanical.

Simplify your talk more than you think you have to, especially if you aren’t using visuals. Give a roadmap for what you will be talking about, and then introduce each individual topic as you reach it. Your audience will appreciate this signposting. If someone zones out midway, your obvious flagging of points will get them back on track. If you have a main point, announce that it is your main point before you say it so that people know to pay attention.

Start with content that is easier to understand and/or engage with, and then work up from there.

If you are using PowerPoint or something similar, remember that less is more. Do not put full paragraphs of text on the screen, and do not expect your audience to read while you are talking. Visuals should be used to highlight key points or to supplement your lecture with images, graphs, videos, etc. Remember to close any extra-curricular tabs you may have open on your device before projecting it to the room!

Move around if you feel comfortable, but if not, it’s okay to stay stationary or hold onto a podium.

Gesturing and varying your voice helps listeners stay engaged.

Project your voice. Remember that your voice must reach the people in the back row.

If you write on the board or project something on the screen, avoid talking with your back to the audience.

Speak slower than you think you have to. We have the tendency to talk quickly, especially when we are nervous, but this can make it difficult for listeners to follow your speech. Also, take pauses once in a while to drink water or simply breathe.

If you can see your audience, make eye contact! Try to hold eye contact with individuals for a few seconds each. This is harder than it sounds, but it will make a huge difference. You will appear more confident and will hold people’s attention for longer.

Practice your lecture enough to know how long it will take, but not so much that it will sound robotic.

Know your own strengths and weaknesses. If you are funny, using jokes will definitely increase engagement; however, if you aren’t typically a humorous person, attempting to be funny may not work out as well for you. If you are vivacious, your lecture may take on a performance-like quality, whereas if you are more serious and subdued, attempting to don a bubbly persona may feel too forced. It sounds cheesy, but be yourself!

(2) Leading Discussions  

Decide where you want to lead the discussion from. Will you stand at the front? Sit or lean at the front? Sit with your students? Each position results in a different environment and different sense of authority. Choose the one that best matches what you want to accomplish.

Will you be leading discussions for the same group of students regularly? If so, you need to make it clear from Day 1 that you expect them to contribute to discussion. If they sense that you will cave and answer your own questions, they will be less likely to contribute. This means that you are initially going to have to be comfortable waiting in silence for someone to answer a question.

So, be comfortable with silence. Often, students just need time to think about the question before they are ready to answer. If you are nervous, moments of silence can feel extremely uncomfortable. Count to twenty, take a drink of water, look around at your students, or walk to a different area of the room… occupy yourself with something to wait it out.

Try rephrasing the question, but only after waiting for someone to answer.

Be ready to play devil’s advocate. Ultimately, we want to develop critical thinkers, so you will want to challenge your students’ assumptions. Before asking a question, think about various ways that question could be answered.

If you initially used a group-work type discussion (see below), when you reach open discussion, refer to student points you overheard (e.g., “John had a great point when I went around…”).

Have an idea of points you would like to reach with the discussion, but be willing to go off in a different direction if your students take an alternate angle.

Different Types of Discussion:

a) Open Discussion: Teacher guides discussion by asking questions or providing comments.

b) Think-Pair-Share: Students first consider a point on their own. Then, they discuss the topic with a partner. After this discussion, the partners all report out to the class (or the topic becomes an open discussion).

c) Group Work: Students are arranged in groups to discuss a topic. The teacher should visit each group to make sure they are on track. Group discussions may evolve to an open discussion, or all groups may report out.

d) Jigsaw: Students are arranged in groups, and each group is given a different topic (thereby forming groups of “experts” in each topic). Group members are then all divided into new groups (each new group has at least one expert from each topic). Every student tells their new group about their initial topics.

e) Debate: Students are divided into teams to debate two sides of an issue. This usually involves an initial argument from each team and then a rebuttal from each. The teacher may assign students to sides or let them choose their own.

f) Threading the Question: The teacher begins by asking a low-stakes, opinion-based question. When a student answers (also saying why or why not), that student then names another student, who must agree or disagree with the first student and give a reason. Then that student names another student, and so on.

g) Fishbowl: The class is arranged in two circles facing inwards: one small one in the centre of the room, and a larger one around it. The students sitting in the middle circle all discuss a topic, and students on the outside silently listen. Students on the outer circle can “tap in” to the topic by tagging a student on the inner circle and replacing them. After this activity, the discussion can be opened up to the whole class.


General Tips:

  • Practice, practice, practice. Public speaking is a skill that only gets easier if you do it regularly. Try to put yourself in situations where you have the opportunity to speak in front of others.
  • Ask for feedback. You can ask for informal feedback from your audience (e.g., you could hand out a feedback sheet for them to complete) or formal feedback from an outside observer (e.g., ask your supervisor to attend a lecture and meet with him/her afterwards to discuss).
  • Ask someone to video record you speaking or teaching, and then watch it and self-evaluate.
  • visit the room you will be speaking in before you have to speak there.
  • test out any technology you will be using before people arrive. Have a gameplan if your technology fails to work.


Tips for Lecturing to ELL Students:

  • project or write questions on the board
  • avoid using jargon or unnecessarily complicated words. Articulate.
  • avoid speaking for extended periods of time. Break up lecture with activities, and visit these students to make sure they understood.
  • use mediums that pair text with pictures whenever possible (videos, graphic novels, etc.)
  • instead of requiring note-taking, use fill-in-the-blank style notes
  • ask for English-speaking students to volunteer to take notes that will be available for other students
  • make PowerPoint presentations available to your students
  • consider recording your lectures for ELL students to be able to take home and listen to again


Tips for Dealing With Stage Fright:

  • you might want to start with more of a script in the beginning (if it makes you more comfortable), and practice saying the words out loud. Work your way up to point-form notes.
  • over-prepare initially. Have extra material planned if you end up short, and know which material you can cut if you run out of time.
  • dress more professionally than you feel. Have a “teaching uniform” that makes you feel more confident; having a uniform can make you feel less like you’re putting your true self out there and more like you are performing.
  • bring a “safety blanket”: have something you can hold onto as a kind of totem or worry stone. (E.g., a coffee mug, a pen, etc.) Use it when you feel shaky or when there is silence.
  • If there is a podium or table, it’s okay to stand behind it or to hold onto it.
  • It is okay if you don’t know an answer to something. You can ask the class what they think or say you will look it up and report back. You don’t have to be the expert in everything.


A Note on Imposter Syndrome:

It’s very common to feel like you somehow slipped by and are living as a fraud, undeserving of your current position. It’s common to be afraid that you will be “found out.” As a teacher, this can be an especially scary feeling to deal with, and it’s not an easy feeling to get over.

Remember that you definitely know more than your students about your subject, but that it’s okay to not know some things. You can be honest about your limits. Also remember that many, many other people also feel like imposters, but we only see their outer worlds (not the inner worlds where self-doubt exists). If you find yourself with great amounts of anxiety, talk to a professional.




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