Alice Savage

Public Speaking in English is Scary. Drama can Help

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For the record, this is not Emilio!

Poor Emilio! He seemed like such a confident student, but when he had to give a talk in front of the class, he ran to the bathroom and was sick. Emilio’s case might be extreme, but according to the psychologist, Michelle Lynsky, public speaking is one of the most terrifying experiences of modern life, and that’s for people performing in their first language.

To feel confident, speakers need to feel the audience is on their side. For this to happen, they need believe that a) they have something interesting to say, b) that the audience will understand it, and c) that they’ll enjoy the experience. Yet, it’s hard for the speaker to acheive that goal when staring out into a sea of blank faces.

One coping strategy is to read a paper out loud which allows the speaker to avoid the audience altogether. A second is to use a power point to deflect attention to the screen and provide the security of written bullet points. A third is to look out at the audience and address them directly and intimately. This last one is the hardest because it requires vulnerability, but when it works (even when combined with slides), it can create a connection with the audience that blasts away fear.

Here’s where drama can help. The following activities from the brand new The Drama Book can help students learn strategies that build skills and confidence, whether they are presenting for a class, preparing for a high stakes job interview or meeting a friend’s parents for the first time.

A. Heart to Heart

Research suggests that when people reveal something personal about themselves, they feel closer to others, a major element of building the trust and community necessary for a public performance. In this activity, students all share a fear and then use that fear as the basis for a roleplay improvisation.

Aim: Build community and practice improvisation

Preparation: A question about the students’ personal experiences or opinions

Time: 10 minutes or more depending on class size

Activity

  1. Have students stand in a circle. Start the activity with a bean bag. Give them a minute to think about something they are afraid of. Then tell them something you are afraid of and toss the beanbag randomly to a new speaker and invite them to share their fear. Then they toss the beanbag to the next speaker and so on until everyone has shared.
  2. Next or on subsequent days, repeat with other questions such as the following.
    • Who is your hero?
    • What are you grateful for?
    • What is your biggest pet peeve? (A pet peeve is something that other people do that annoys you such as twirling their hair, tapping their leg, or interrupting.)
    • What do you wish people understood about you?
    • How can this group support you?

3. Take notes, or have students quickly write down their answers and hand them in. Later, use the information for improvisation games later. Here’s are two examples.

Loreta is afraid of snakes.

Improv: Benjamina, Xing and Raul are camping, and they are looking for wood to build a fire. Secretly tell Xing and Raul that they see a snake in tent, but they don’t want Benjamina to find out. What do they do?

Carolina is uncomfortable saying no.

Improv: Walter and Kaiko want Carolina to recommend them to her boss. Secretly tell Carolina that she is quite sure they will be nothing but trouble, so her goal is to convince them not to apply.

B. Best Dressed Guests

It can be difficult to transfer pronunciation practiced in drills to real world interactions. This consonant cluster activity helps students move from a focus on forming specific sounds to using prosody and stress to signal emotion and intention. By layering on meaning incrementally, it can give students a strategy not only for preparing speeches but also for practicing pitches to bosses or other authority figures.

Aim: To embed specific consonant cluster practice into communicative experiences.

Preparation: Prepare a sentence or set of sentences that contain the consonant cluster(s) that you want to work on.

Time: 10 minutes per round.

Activity

  1. Write the sentence on the board. Discuss the sounds you want work on and practice with a drill. The following is an example with /st/ and /ts/ and / θ / and / ð/

         Steve and Beth were the best dressed guests at Christian’s gathering.

2. Say the sentence with two types of intonation. A: Say it with certainty. B: Say it as though you are doubtful. Have students guess whether your meaning is A or B. Practice the two types of intonation until students feel confident.

3. Have students work in pairs. One says the sentence with a specific intonation, the other guesses A: certainty or B: Doubt.

4. Add a line to create a two-part dialog. This time say A with confidence, and then B with either agreement or doubt, and have students guess again.

          A: Steve and Beth were the best dressed guests at Christian’s gathering.

          B: Best dressed. (agree)

          B: Best dressed? (Doubtful)

4. Switch partners and have pairs practice again with partners giving each other feedback on whether they understand agreement or disagreement.

Variation

Collect other sounds that will be useful for students to learn and repeat the process with new dialogs. Or have students write their own dialogs with the words containing consonant clusters. You can also have them elaborate by continuing the dialog.

/sc/ / ð/

A: I almost screamed when I saw that scary monster on my screen.

B: You screamed./?

/ts/

A: An expert editor corrects texts.

B: Corrects texts./?

C. Mini-Monologues

Actors make deliberate decisions about stress emphasis to communicate emotional messages and so much language learners if they do not want to sound wooden or even insincere. Whereas the general rule of thumb states that content words such as nouns and verbs get stressed, it is also true that we often need to stress small seemingly unimportant words to get meaning across, such as in contrastive stress. An extra benefit of this activity is that the performance of even a short-prepared monologue can help students become comfortable putting emotional resonance into their delivery.

*Note: To stress to a word, is not to necessarily say it louder but to lengthen the vowel sound.

Aim: To provide strategies for incorporating prosody into a public performance.

Preparation: Select one or more mini-monologues that have emotional messages. Make copies or prepare to display on a board or screen.

Time: varies according to class size

Activity

  1. Create a recording of a monologue to play for students or read it aloud with emotional resonance and stress. Elicit the topic by asking, “What’s it about? Who is talking?” Next, discuss the mood of the speaker and any language choices that might reveal this emotion by asking, “How does the speaker feel?” and “What does the speaker want?”

Below are three very short monologues that reflect the functions of complaining, declining an invitation, and expressing concern. Each contains opportunities for                both emotional messaging and stress emphasis. You can choose one or do all three.

  • The cat has fleas, so someone has to take her to the vet. It can’t be me! I’m busy. I’m already late for work. And it’s not my cat anyway. You’re the one that wanted a cat!
  • I would love to come. . . really I would. It’s just that I have this thing I gotta do. If I could get out of it, I would, but I made a promise to a friend and I can’t let him down. (pause) Can I come another time?
  • A car accident? Are you okay? (pause). Well that’s a relief!  Where are you? I’ll come and get you. Just give the address. (pause) The address! You don’t know where you are?  How am I going to find you? Are you sure you’re okay?

2. Give students copies or display the monologues. Review the speaker’s emotion/intention. Then discuss and mark thought groups and stress. (Every thought group has at least one stressed word.)

3. Have individual students choose one of the mini-monologues to work with or assign one. Give them ten minutes to memorize the monologue and plan the following elements:

  • use stress emphasis and pauses
  • express an emotion such as frustration, concern, or regret
  • include gesture and expressions

4. Have student perform in groups and/or for the class. Give feedback on the various elements. Consider having them do a second monologue on their own as homework. They could even write it themselves.

     *         *       *

For more activities that can help students like Emilio, check out The Drama Book from Alphabet Publishing. It features different ways that drama and theater can enliven the classroom while providing new ways to meet language learning objectives.

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