Friday, May 13, 2011

Perfectly Pleasant Presentations

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

I Have to do What?!?

From all the groaning and writhing that was taking place in my class, you would think I just told them they would have to spend several hours at the dentist getting all sorts of uncomfortable procedures done. In fact, I had just informed my students that the following week they would be delivering a short presentation in front of the class.

This is consistently one of the least popular lessons in my classes; students really seem to hate public speaking. This reaction, though, isn’t really a surprise. In fact, in some surveys, the fear of public speaking (glossophobia) ranks higher than the fear of death (necrophobia). Add to the mix the fact that students need to do this in a language that is not their first, and you can see why this is a terrifying prospect to many language learners. In fact, one of my students used to get so scared before her presentations, she actually became pale and sickly looking and shook like a leaf.

It’s like Medicine or Eating your Vegetables

So, why would I put my students through this horror? Simple. It’s good for them. Many of my students need to (or will need to) use their English in their work or education context. Often, this involves public speaking, whether it is a briefing for their army unit or simply presenting their ideas at an informal gathering. Having practice giving a presentation in English in a safe, non-judgmental situation (like our classroom) will help them to become more comfortable when they have to do it for real in conditions that are not as friendly. In addition, presentation norms differ from country to country. For instance, in North America, we expect speakers to make eye contact; a good presentation is not read from a paper, but told to an audience. The connection between speaker and listener is important to us. However, in some cultures, eye contact is not an essential part of public speaking. In fact, according to Sellnow (2004), in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, direct eye contact can be a sign of disrespect.

Clearly, students need to master the cultural skills associated with public speaking in a North American business or academic environment if they will be giving speeches in that very context. Besides, students seem to really want this practice. As a matter of fact, my students used to complain so loudly whenever I assigned a presentation, I cut them from my syllabus. A few months into the new term, the student who was most scared (the pale shaker described above) asked me why I had discontinued this part of the lesson. A short discussion ensued in which the very students who had whined and grumbled before were extolling the virtues of public speaking practice. So, back into my lesson plan it went.

Step by Step

In my experience, teaching public speaking skills is best when it is broken down into a few manageable pieces. Over the course of a semester, I might have the students give 3 or 4 short (2 minute) presentations. The focus of each presentation is different.

In the first, the students are graded on their eye contact and body language. About a week before the presentation, I give a short lesson that lays out native English speaker expectations in terms of eye contact (more is better) facial expressions (smile!) and body language (limit pacing, make purposeful, controlled gestures, hands out of pockets, etc.)

For the second presentation, the focus might be on organization. North American norms call for a paragraph style organization with an introduction, a body and a conclusion. I also give students information about and practice with dealing with questions at the end.

A third presentation might deal with creating good PowerPoint slides (limit text, spell check) and using them well (maintaining eye contact!). You get the idea. There are tons of great “how to give a speech ” videos in youtube, as well as a lot of great information on the internet for teachers and students.

For each presentation, I give the students an easy topic, for example a food from their country or a favorite song. I also stress the time limit. I restrict them to 1-2 minute presentations for the pragmatic reason that I don’t want to spend hours and hours on this in class. I prefer to give each student a little practice often rather than have them do one long presentation in the semester. I think it is also important to give the audience something to do while they listen. Sometimes I ask them to write a follow up questions for each speaker and then I give them time to circulate and ask some of their questions. Or, when we are focusing on eye contact, I have each student write their name on 2 slips of paper. I randomly distribute the papers, giving 2 to each student. The students then pay special attention to “their” speakers and count how many times the speakers make eye contact with them. They write the total on the paper and I give them back to the speakers.

I also grade the presentations. My rubrics are pretty simple. I write the skills I want the students to focus on and the numbers from 1 to 5. As the students are speaking, I circle the appropriate number and write some compliments and suggestions for them. When I can, I really like to video tape at least one presentation. I can tell students to take their hands out of their pockets until I am blue in the face, but once they see themselves doing it on video, they are really motivated to do something about it.

So, in my opinion, including presentations in our lessons plans is a “must”. Students often need this practice and, even though they complain, they secretly agree that it is important.

Sellnow, D. (2004) Confident Public Speaking, Oxford: Wadsworth Publishing.


Comment from Claire
May 16, 2011 at 8:34 am

Tamara, I strongly agree with your last sentence. All students must practice giving presentations whether in English or their native language. I tell my ESL students that it is very much like a job interview except they are not answering questions. Seeing their confidence grow over the semester is better than a paycheck, well, almost 🙂

Comment from Tamara Jones
May 18, 2011 at 6:43 am

Ha ha! Yes, almost! I like the comparison to the job interview.

Comment from Jamal
May 20, 2011 at 3:18 am

Dear Ms.Jones
The best way to deal with scary students is to let them read and recite an easy proverb.Then to use a video camera in order to show and explain their faults.

Comment from Tamara Jones
May 23, 2011 at 7:05 am

I agree that a video camera is a very useful tool. Many students even have small video recorders on their digital cameras and cell phones. Teachers can have them ask another student to record them giving the presentation and then have them watch themselves for homework and come up with 2 positives and 2 “areas for improvement” regarding their performance.

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