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Five Ideas for Preparing Kids for Public Speaking

Eight year-old No. One stood in front of a room of 50 people at the junior track of engineering conference with a mic and a laser pointer.  She was describing a two-bit binary adder she’d built, and she nailed it!



She and her sibs pretty routinely speak in public—although not with that big of an audience—in one form or another.  To them, it’s not a big deal.  It’s something everyone else around them does, so why wouldn’t they?  They never got the memo telling them that public speaking was something to be feared.

Part of their comfort—I think—has to do with the fact that they inadvertently grew up speaking in public; thanks in part to me being lazy.  Here are five things we did together that I think got them used to the idea of public speaking.

Paying the ticket at the restaurant:  It’s always been the job of the youngest kid to take our money for the restaurant bill to our server.  The three to four year-old kid wanders around, finds the person, and gives them our money.  It doesn’t so much involve speaking per se, although that might be a part of it, but it does get the kid used to wandering around in a crowd of people.  They get used to—or perhaps just learn to never register—other people around them watching what they’re doing as they go by.  They get used to addressing people they’ve only met briefly.

As usual, this idea came to me more out of a certain lazy pragmatism rather than any desire to ‘teach’ anything to the kids.  (We’re an unschooling family.  Teaching as such isn’t really my thing.)  With one kid in a wrap, and two other small kids, when it was time to leave a restaurant, it was often really time to leave.  As a dad, I’d developed a sixth sense for when one of the kids was going to start screaming.  Taking the money to our server occupied one kid , and also got us out of the joint more quickly because we didn’t have to wait for people to turn up to take the money.

This also resulted in another unintended  benefit.  The kids started making friends with the people who worked in the cafes, pubs and restaurants we frequented.  They’d ask to drop in and say hi even if we were going somewhere else and just happened to be nearby.

Getting Carryout:  Yeah, most of our ‘learning activities’ do involve food :)  This is the next step up.  The deal this time was to go into our favorite carryout joint, order the food, get the food, pay for the food, and meet me back out on the sidewalk.  The 8, 6, and 4 year-old gang all do this one together.  Again with being used to walking into places, being the center of focus of random strangers and whatnot.  The kids really don’t know it’s a thing.  They have to get someone’s attention, they have to communicate what they want, they have to make sure they’re getting their ideas across clearly—because frankly, if they make a mistake, it’s their lunch that’s getting messed up.

Once again, let me emphasize, we’re not some sort of independent kid geniuses, mostly I’m just lazy and I like for the kids to have fun.  My dream is to have the kids wander out a few blocks to get our carryout and come back, but for now, I’m content to hangout on the sidewalk enjoying San Francisco’s brisk weather and stunning architecture.

Also again, other perks ensued.  The gang has even more buddies in another part of town.  They’re building a network.  It’s really nice.

Attending Talks:  The kids were all born while I was a poor grad student.  I’ve always enjoyed attending talks, but as a grad student, talks were also a source of free food.  I wanted to be able to keep seeing talks after the kids arrived, so I started taking the them with me to get them used to it.  They’d sit and draw or color.  I’d take in the talk.  It turned out as frequently as not, they were taking in the talks also.  At the end, people—sometimes me—would ask the presenter questions.  I hadn’t thought about it, but the asking questions thing was really a fledgeling form of public speaking.  Which leads as to:

Practice: The kids and I all became ardent fans of Mike Way and Nick Derrington’s “Doom Patrol” funny books.  We’d read them together.  We’d discuss them late into the night on camping trips.  We are bona fide fans.

And then it happened.  One of our local funny book stores announced that Mike and Nick were coming to speak.  Then six year-old No . One and I managed to score tickets to the talk.  We both had questions about the funny book.  The stories involve references to DaDa art and part of their appeal for us has always been their vagueness.

I told One she should ask one of her questions.  She agreed.  I asked her what her question was, and we refined it together.  (If memory serves she wanted to know about the origin of one of her favorite characters, Space Case).  We role-played her question while we were out walking our dog in our nearby park.

The night of the talk, when it came time for audience questions, One’s hand flew into the air.  She asked her question.  She got her answer, it all worked out perfectly.  She wasn’t nervous, why should she be?  She was just doing what everyone else around her was doing.  To her it just wasn’t a big deal, because well, because it actually just wasn’t.

Sometimes Just Watching Works:  Some kids though, don’t need practice so much.  One’s sib, Two, started attending talks with us as he got older, (you know, when he turned four).  He saw other people ask questions, he saw One ask questions.  He took it all in.

At one talk, as I walked up to ask a question, I looked down to see who the short person in line in front of me was.  It was Two!  He asked his question, everything went great!

And that’s how I think the kids got used to public speaking.  Because first of all I’m lazy, second of all, I enjoy my free food, and third of all, I want the kids to be comfortable around people.  Consequently, they’ve been doing things some folks might consider outside of comfort zones since forever.  These things seems to have helped.  Being out; being around people; being in charge of themselves; and—just as importantly—considering themselves to be just other members of the audience has led to them being...  Well, just other comfortable members of the audience.  Even if it’s the audience they happen to be presenting to :)

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