Ten public speaking tips for teachers.

16 Jun 2017


“What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

Ralph Emerson

Is there a profession that demands skilled public speaking more than teaching? We are on stage all day, every day, at the whim and fancy of the most capricious (and wonderful!) of audiences: adolescents. How we present ourselves while we are on our classroom platform is vitally important: influencing the dynamic of relationships, how we manage behaviour and most importantly our ability to encourage learning and retention of information.

Importantly, public speaking is a skill to be honed and crafted. My communication idol is the former US president Barack Obama, a man who mastered the art of public speaking with conviction (as Stephen King tweeted this week: “Can we have Obama back? Please?”) What is interesting is to reflect on is how Obama’s public speaking developed over his political career. When he burst onto the scene as a relatively unknown at the Democrat address in 2004 his speech was characterised by extensive supporting hand gestures. He points frequently throughout and uses his hands to reiterate messages, all supporting him in conveying energy and dynamism. Fast forward ten years and he has a much more stately and restrained aura about his body language and tone– befitting that of the stature of a president. In this 2015 State of the Union address he rarely gesticulates and uses his hands carefully in order to reaffirm what he is saying, he communicates slowly and uses more laboured pauses to affirm his points.

Into this ponderous mood on public speaking dropped the excellent ‘Ted Talks: the official TED guide to public speaking’ by Chris Anderson ‘Head of TED’ (what a great job title!). Anderson deconstructs the qualities of successful TED talks, the magic behind those who have achieved great things in the eighteen minutes they have on stage. TED talks and classroom talk have interesting parallels: time is very much constrained; the speakers are speaking on areas they are passionate about; their aim is to motivate, engage and enthuse their audiences and ensure they retain vital knowledge. So bearing those links in mind I thought I would reflect on ten areas to consider, that might have  impact in our classrooms and in growing our abilities as communicators:

1.  Words matter: A simple and clear place to start: the words we use and how we use them in the classroom are vitally important. Good classroom communication is subtle and refined, much like the nuances that build an impressive presentation. Being always thoughtful about what we say and how we communicate are of course vital teacher tools. Perhaps it is best to embrace the Nelson Mandela approach: “It is never my custom to use words lightly”. This is an interesting point to consider:

“Language works its magic only to the extent that it is shared by speaker and listener. And there’s the key clue to how to achieve the miracle of re-creating your idea in someone else’s brain. You can only use the tools that your audience has access to. If you start only with your language, your concepts, your assumptions, your values, you will fail. So instead, start with theirs.” ‘TED Talks’ pg 18.

2. Hone the purpose: I know how often I am prone to rambling repetition in the classroom. Breaking down the purpose of everything we say will help us to create classrooms of clarity. If we are going to deliver information from the front of the room we need to consider what value it will have to our lesson: will it move learning forward, will it offer some clarification? Or are we just filling space and time with no real purpose? Perfectly linking in to:

3. Less is more: Considering what you can make most meaningful in a presentation will help in making our teacher talk more impactful. Preparation is everything if we are going to communicate in an impactful way: knowing when and how we are going to interject with information will assist in learning moving forward in our classrooms. This is not to dismiss the impact of direct instruction – it is instead to consider making sure that all classroom direction is clear and precise.

4. Eye contact: Connection in the classroom is vitally important: to have an impact on our students we need to build positive and respectful relationships with them.  I often find myself guilty of the teacher tunnel vision when communicating with a class – looking at a small proportion of the class or scanning the room quickly while I talk. Common sense applies: as adults would we really listen to anyone who didn’t engage us through eye contact while they spoke? One of the easiest wins to assist in helping create classrooms founded on positive relationships and rapport is through meaningful eye contact: it opens up a door to our students trusting us and finding us credible.

It is not about labouring eye contact directly to one student while the rest of the class get up to all kinds of high jinks – it is about being more thoughtful about who is receiving eye contact. Importantly it is about sustaining three-to five seconds of eye contact with students to make them feel more included and invested in the lesson. This has a number of other benefits: we can check how responsive they are to our messaging and how focussed they are in our learning. We are also modelling values to them again and improving their concentration, removing the chances of passivity at best and apathy at worst.

5. Hand gestures: Some teachers (I very much include myself in this!) are widely eccentric with their hand gestures – embracing the air controller approach and gesticulating in ways that can only serve to distract the attention of students. As an observer, or indeed the classroom teacher, you can see it when children are hypnotically watching our hands rather than listening to anything we are saying. Young people can easily misinterpret hand gestures and this leads to confusion in learning or instructions.

The juxtaposition of the air controller, however, is just as harmful, with a static hand user communicating a lack of passion for our subjects and a lack of trust in our audience. Cold indifference is certainly not what we want to promote in the classroom. The middle ground lies in slowing down hand gestures and eliminating distracting mannerisms to naturally amplify what we are saying. This will sustain the enthusiasm we have and help us to convey sincerity in the classroom. It is of course about finding ways in which we are most comfortable and natural, but recognising that certain ways of using our hands can help us to encourage learning in the classroom and sustain the attention of our students.

6. Posture:  Good posture can be a passport to conveying calm, confident control and increased assertiveness. By working to develop improved posture we start to alleviate the symptoms that can often appear married to teaching: that irritating tension and pain in the neck, shoulders and back. It is also vital in influencing our own perception of how much of a ‘presence’ we are at the front of the room: giving direct instruction more of a sense of clarity and purpose. By appearing relaxed and confident with our own posture, we are also influencing how young people mirror our behaviours in the classroom.

Primarily it is about maintaining a relaxed upright appearance and a neutral spine: being alert but not stiff. We should ideally aim to follow the three contours of the spine, aiming for the ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles aligning in one straight line. This will enable us to follow the spine’s natural curvature, with our necks straight and shoulders parallel with the hips. The head should remain centred over the shoulders and extended up towards the ceiling. Research such as ‘Do Slumped and Upright Postures Affect Stress Responses’ have indicated that the more we adopt an upright posture the more we can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative moods and increase positive moods in comparison to a slumped posture. Importantly in our teaching world, good posture also increases our self-focus and capacity to communicate well. This post explores my own battles to rise like a phoenix from the flames and consign the slouch to the posture dust bin.

7. Tell a story: the power of a story in the classroom is transformative. As Anderson notes: “We’re born to tell stories. They are instant generators of interest, empathy, emotion and intrigue.” When using dialogue in the classroom building in areas from our own lives or experiences can do wonders in building relationships and encouraging students to remember information. Telling the story behind what we are teaching also generates genuine interest from students. This will facilitate more engagement and interest, sparking the curiosity of young people in the room. This links perfectly to:

8. The power of the detective: The power of revealing things slowly to young people, building up a narrative and curiosity is another sure win to building positive classrooms. In ‘TED Talks’ Anderson talks about the power of the detective story:

“Some of the most compelling persuasive talks are structured entirely around this device. You start with the big mystery, then travel the world of ideas in search of possible solutions to it, ruling them out one b one, until there is only one viable solution that survives.”  ‘TED Talks’ pg 92.

The potential here for interesting learning experiences for young people is endless, generating emotional engagement and resulting in improved memory and retention. For me this works particularly well when exploring poems with students.

9. Cut down the slides: I won’t open up the Powerpoint debate again, I have already written on the ‘Teaching Naked’ approach. What is clear is that slides can augment and add power to our teacher talk, but they can also distract. A helpful little nugget from ‘TED talks’ to consider when reflecting on how we use slides:

“In the twenty-first century we have the ability to supplement the spoken word with a dazzling array of technologies that, done right, might take a talk to a new level… Despite this the first question to ask yourself is whether you actually need any of it. It’s a striking fact that at least a third of TED’s most viewed talks make no use of slides whatsoever.” ‘TED Talks’ pg 207

10. Speak with meaning: How to use the voice to convey more meaning and passion is something I have been ruminating on recently. I will save my juvenile pontifications for another post, instead it seems apt to finish with this helpful TED talk by Julian Treasure: “How to speak so that people want to listen”:

Deliberate practice can help in growing our ability to communicate effectively: Anderson defines it in his book as “presentation literacy: the skill you can build.” I have been experimenting over the past couple of weeks with focussing on one particular area from the above ten. This week it was thinking about how I was using hand gestures (“wildly over the top”, according to the sensitive student feedback), embracing the stately, refined Obama approach. Next week I will be startling and unsettling young people with some more elongated and widespread eye contact. The important thing is to see this as another aspect of teaching and learning to be developed and practised. As Shakespeare never wrote:

“To speak, or not to speak, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous audience members,
Or to run and hide,To die, to sleep”.

Thank you for reading.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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