Over the past 14 years that I’ve been watching students give presentations on literature, social issues, and a variety of other subjects, I’ve seen a lot of odd reactions on the parts of students. I remember a really intelligent student who finished a presentation, seemed fine, then sat down and just started shaking and weeping.
Worse is the student who passed out. She finished her presentation as the bell rang. As the class was filing out the door, she looked at me from the front of the room where she had been presenting, turned white, said, “I don’t feel very good,” and keeled over like a felled tree. She smashed her two front teeth in and had to leave in a wheel chair. She was gone for two full weeks.
Some students are almost neurotic about presenting. There’s that conversation that I have to have with some of them. “If you cannot do the presentation, you’ll have to prove it to me. I need a note from a parent or something. Is it in your 504 or IEP? We’ll have to figure something out.”
Technically, there is an alternative to giving a speech for students who are so freaked out that they can never give a presentation. You have them develop the visual aid, then they have to sit in front of you, take out some blank sheets of paper, and then write out the entire speech… but let’s be honest… these are “speaking and listening strategies,” not “writing strategies.”
Students, staff… anyone can get nervous when delivering a presentation. The question is… how do you get it under control? Or rather how do you get students to get it under control.
I will admit that I get a bit nervous when presenting in front of my peers. I think it’s fairly natural. Before I talk about how to talk students off the ledge, let’s look at the value of being nervous. If you’re nervous, it shows that you’re taking your job seriously. Nervousness probably reminds you that you need to plan. It makes you your own worse critic… which is the best kind of critic to be. It hopefully even reminds you that you don’t want to be on stage that long. To bastardize the words of Thomas Jefferson:
“That presenter is best who presents least.”
So… at long last (and thanks for bearing with me), some strategies:
1. The only substitute for experience is experience. Students need a chance to get up there and say something. The first time I have my seniors stand up in front of the class is when they introduce themselves as a part of a “mock interview.” This is just after they’ve gone out and gotten together an application packet for a job. The questions I give them:
- What is your complete name?
- What is your favorite class? Why?
- What is your least favorite class? Why?
- Who is your best friend?
- If your best friend had to describe you in one word, what would it be?
- Then I give them two randomized interview questions based upon their resume, cover letter, and application.
The important thing here is that they know exactly what they are going to be asked. They are able to control things to a much larger degree. They can even bring up the answers to the questions and read them off (some students, believe it or not, get so agitated that they cannot even remember their name during this exercise). This is somewhat similar to exposure therapy, I suppose.
2. I give students the chance to come to me outside of classroom time and try out their speeches and look at their visual aids. Being in the venue often helps… unless you find out that your venue is ten times larger than you expected.
3. I don’t tell students that it is there turn to “go.” Instead, I tell them that they volunteer whenever they are ready. In order to keep things going, I tell them that they need to fill the presenting time with presentations. If they cannot field an entire session of presentations, I ask “Is anyone ready to go? Going once… going twice… going thrice… SOLD FOR 10% OFF!” That means that anyone going the next day loses 10% credit. The next time I cannot fill the session, they drop another 10%. How does this help them? They are taking control of the situation by grabbing it by the throat.
A few things I say to get students into the right frame of mind:
1. “So… think back to when you gave a presentation last year… or whenever… can you remember any of those presentations? Do you even remember your presentation? If you do your presentation, no one will remember it next year. No one will remember it tomorrow. They might not even remember it seconds later. What are you worried about?”
2. Remember that if you have properly prepared, no one in this room is smarter about this topic than you are.
3. Breath. If you breath well, it will cut down on the shaking.
Remember that 1 and 2 are not necessarily true once they leave the classroom. I often run into people who know more about what I presented than I do. Also, after I present, I sure as heck do expect that people understood what I was saying and remember it later!
Thanks for tuning in. More later!