How To Teach Public Speaking in the Virtual Classroom

Some students love public speaking and bask in the glow of a class presentation or discussion. Other students would do anything to get out of the assignment. While the Zoom classroom has greatly impacted the learning process, the fear (or love) of public speaking remains. As an educator, you likely have students who refuse to speak up unless pressed alongside chatterboxes that can’t stop talking. 

Learning to give presentations is an important skill — and so is presenting in a virtual space. Here are a few ways to teach public speaking remotely that will help students improve their virtual and live presentation abilities.

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Virtual Presenting is a New Life Skill

Public speaking is a unique subject in that you don’t have to recreate the in-person experience online. Instead of creating ways for students to simulate an in-person classroom, you can focus on speaking remotely and sharing good online discussions. This is arguably just as important of a skill as communicating with a group of people in person. 

“Today’s worker must be competent in digital communication beyond written forms of social media,” writes Ruth Best, director at the graduate school of education at Touro College. “They must be prepared to host and lead meetings using various technologies and multimedia. They must be able to capture and engage a virtual audience…What better way for a student to practice and develop 21st Century skills than in the web-enhanced or virtual classroom.”

Even experienced public speakers and keynote presenters have had to relearn how to present virtually over the past year. Your students are going through the same processes as any professional speaker, which means these virtual discussions correlate to real-world experiences. 

“Because of factors like screen fatigue, the ability of audiences to mute their very presence, and even their ability to ‘leave the room’ without being noticed, the bar has been raised for grabbing and holding an audience’s attention in the digital space,’ says Beth Noymer Levine, founder and principal at SmartMouth Communications. “Speakers are being pressed to adapt — adhering to new rules of brevity and finding new, creative ways to interact with audiences.” 

Teaching how to present virtually means talking about the nuances of leading a discussion online. With in-person events, you might go over how to hold a microphone or how to recover if your PowerPoint deck fails. There are a whole other set of guidelines for virtual public speaking.

Middle school teacher Secondary Sara sets aside time to discuss lighting, angles and backgrounds with students who are presenting virtually. A Zoom background that makes your students look like they are on the moon might fly during regular class periods, but wouldn’t be considered professional in a formal setting. 

Instead of trying to teach in-person public speaking skills, to teach good remote presentation skills for future online experiences. 

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How to Teach Public Speaking — Virtually 

While you can certainly focus on virtual public speaking in the online classroom, many of the skills your students learn can be applied to in-person presentations. Here are a few tips for guiding students to feel more confident and comfortable in their presentations. 

Teach Kids to Balance Anxiety and Energy

 As an instructor, you don’t need to banish public speaking anxiety, but rather help students control and even harness it so the adrenaline pushes them through.

“Being nervous does not need to be entirely negative,” says Dan LaSota, is an eCampus instructional designer at the University of Alaska. LaSota explains that anxiety and nerves mean you care, otherwise it wouldn’t matter if the presentation went poorly.

Anxiety about speaking up prevents adults from making themselves heard. They view fear as a self-defense mechanism and run from the source, rather than facing it as a healthy mental response. 

“Children who are shy, sensitive or simply reticent for whatever reason need to be taught how to push through their fears so they can make their voices heard when they have something to say,” says Maurice Decastro, director at Mindful Presenter. “I believe this is a skill of paramount importance to equip them to leave school and face the world with confidence and belief in themselves.” 

Discuss Eye Contact in a Virtual Setting

Eye contact is a major part of public speaking, whether you are engaging with a live audience or connecting digitally. Too often, people look down or away when they speak, breaking their emotional connection. 

“While avoiding direct eye contact may seem like an effective strategy for coping with speaking anxiety, it actually makes you even more nervous,” says Sarah Gershman, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and president at Green Room Speakers. 

Gershman explains that in prehistoric times, humans perceived eyes watching them as a threat. Those were predators watching for weakness so they could attack. This has stuck with us today, which is why our brains kick on panic responses when there is a room full of people watching — either in-person or virtually. 

Even though your students have been attending school online for a year, they might still need some help learning how to make eye contact in their presentations. “It’s hard to connect with a camera that doesn’t give you feedback or smile at you, but connection is equally important virtually as it is in person,” says executive speech coach John Watkis

Watkis recommends practicing making eye contact with the lens. This is harder than you think, as most people are tempted to look at the faces in the video or themselves. He also suggests placing a small photo of a smiling friend or family member near the lens, so you look at them instead and feel their positive energy throughout the presentation.

Practice Clarity Over Camera

Even with modern video technology, some tonal and nonverbal cues are lost over virtual presentations. This is why the words your students speak are more important, along with clear communication in the forms of tone, eye contact and facial expressions. 

“Since your audience won’t be seeing your face directly, visual speech cues are reduced, which means your listener is relying more heavily on the sound of your voice to interpret your message,” says Jayne Latz, founder and CEO at Corporate Speech Solutions. “Slow down, enunciate each sound of each word, and pay particular attention to the consonants at the ends of words to make sure your audience doesn’t miss a thing.” 

By now, you likely understand what your students mean when they race or mumble through the answer to a question — especially if you teach younger learners. However, providing guidance on clarity and enunciation from a young age can create a generation of confident virtual speakers. 

Introduce Informal Conversations 

Pressure to perform well can cause students to feel nervous about a presentation. For example, a student will feel more nervous if they need to give a speech as their final exam than if they talk about their favorite animal. 

“The thought of giving ‘a presentation’ sends even successful CEOs into panic mode,” Carmine Gallo, keynote speaker and author of “Sell Your Ideas,” writes. “The trick is to soften the assignment. Ask for ‘conversations’ instead. After all, a good presentation is like having a conversation with friends.”

Have students lead conversations by presenting an idea and either a few facts or their opinion on it. This also opens the class up to healthy debate and encourages more students to speak up. Several small presentations throughout the year can prepare students for major ones. 

Incorporate Breathing Breaks

As with in-person speaking, students who are presenting virtually should use breathing breaks. These breaks will force them to pause what they are saying, preventing them from rushing through the presentation. 

Middle school teacher Melissa Kruse says breaks can be incorporated as follows:

  • for the audience members to ask questions or make comments.
  • to take a poll or use a live learning game like Kahoot.
  • to show video clips and images.
  • to tell a joke.

Not only can these tips reduce presentation anxiety, but they can also make the material more engaging and memorable for the rest of the class.

If you are grading the presentation, consider adding breaking breaks to part of the rubric. Ask students to build in at least three so they learn a variety of ways to add calming moments into a public speaking exercise. 

Give Students a Support System

Students often dislike public speaking because they feel alone. They are presenting to their entire class. By creating a buddy, you’ll ease the process whether it’s in-person or virtual.

“When using a platform like Zoom to present remotely, it helps immensely to have someone else moderating,” says Dave Thomas, professional public speaker. This person creates the ground rules (like asking attendees to mute themselves or raise their hands), introduces the speaker, and monitors the chat for questions. They also serve as tech support moving slides forward and adjusting the microphone. 

Consider letting students work together so one person moderates while the other presents (and then vice versa). Not only can a moderator make the presentation go smoothly, but they also provide emotional support to the other student and reduce anxiety. 

Walk Them Through A Calming Exercise

To further calm student nerves, you may be able to lead your students through a five-minute calming meditation to teach them how to set aside their nerves.

Executive speech coach Gary Genard created a guide for finding a quiet space, learning how to block out distractions, and visualizing calming items to help you focus and slow your heart rate. It’s possible to walk your students through the process over Zoom and to create space for students to calm themselves virtually before they present.   

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Tap Into Public Speaking Resources

There are many resources available for educators who want to help students with virtual public speaking. A good place to start is The Practice Space, a nonprofit organization that provides a safe space to improve public speaking strategies. They’ve curated a list of blog posts and resources you can use to bring your students out of their shells.

For example, there is a communication anxiety quiz where students can reflect on personal feelings and triggers related to speaking. There are also warm-up exercises for the beginning of class and insights for making storytelling more inclusive and equitable.   

The team at Quills and Quotes shares 12 games that you can play with your students. One is starting a story with, “Two friends settled in for a night of camping in their backyard…” and then having each student add a sentence to the plot. This may be a small game, but it teaches kids to make themselves heard and allows them to contribute in a meaningful way.

One of the benefits of living in a tech-centric world is that we have access to key examples of good public speaking. The team at Edpuzzle encourages teachers to share TED talks and other videos that highlight good presentation skills. Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is to watch someone who has mastered it. Plus, students can mimic these TED speakers in a “fake it until you make it” fashion.

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