Oracy, or speech, is a fundamental part of competence in English. Speaking with confidence is important in many situations, not least the Oracy component of GCSE English. We use oracy skills at key moments in life, such as interviews for education or work, and academic or professional presentations. And yet, if you ask most people, they will say that formal or public speaking makes them nervous. So, how can we address this concern and help learners to express themselves in a confident and authentic way?
One of the skills I insist that English students practice regularly is reading aloud. Not only does it build confidence, it encourages the student to proofread and edit in real time. Many students find themselves making changes to their written work after reading aloud, that they would not have noticed were needed by reading alone. It is a well-known fact that top U.K. universities Oxford and Cambridge require undergraduates to read essays out during tutorials, a practice that helps students develop an authoritative academic voice. Such skills are also indispensable in the workplace, as making yourself heard and understood are essential for professional success.
The nerves we feel at the prospect of speaking under scrutiny can translate into physical reactions. We may take shallow breaths, speak way too fast without sufficient breaks, and tense up. It will make the experience of speaking strained and unenjoyable. The most important thing to remember is to slow down and take full breaths. Pauses feel a lot longer in the mind of the speaker, so don’t be afraid to ‘hold the space’ by taking a short break to compose yourself.
While body language should not be forced or overthought, it can make a huge difference to be aware of the image that one projects. For instance, a speaker should aim to strike a balance between being relaxed and attentive, trying not to be overly serious or unnaturally expressive. Sit or stand up straight – this will aid breathing and project a confident demeanour. All these things will be visible and audible, and contribute to an impression that the speaker is calm and in control.
Practicing for the speaking exam, or indeed any verbal presentation, is the key to success. But how can we do this effectively? As noted, it’s really helpful to read your work aloud, but this isn’t permitted in the exam, and it can also sound very unnatural. Flashcards can help, and should be a key part of your preparation. But practicing alone won’t simulate the pressure of a live situation, so you should find a family member or friend to be your audience. Try to speak as if you are telling them a story, quite naturally, rather than running through a series of points. It’s not easy; most people struggle with it, but it is absolutely worth getting over the cringe factor to become a performer of your own work!
Make an Impression and Have Fun
Most of us have heard about the importance of first impressions. A strong finish, or ending on a high, is also crucial as is will leave your listener with a positive final impression. Observe how your favourite actors, musicians or presenters do this. Copy them, and use every opportunity to practice. My final tip is to have fun with it. The more you do this, the more it will come naturally to you.