How to Teach Public Speaking Skills

Diane's Quick-Start Guide

Learn the Essentials of Teaching Speaking Skills


Classical rhetoric has been around for 3000 years, but most schools have forgotten how to teach it. If we want to raise leaders who can communicate like statesmen, we need to teach our kids public speaking skills.  Learn how the art of oratory inspires confident, persuasive speech in homeschool kids.

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-- Teach 5 Classical Canons --

What are "classical canons," and how are they related to public speaking skills?

No child begins a classical education fully formed as a thinker or communicator. Deep, timeless ideas are challenging, and wrestling with them require years of preparation and mental discipline. Your homeschool teaching strategy in the k-8 school years is to get your child ready to grapple with these big ideas during high school. Once you learn the rules of classical rhetoric, you can begin teaching them as early as late elementary school. You don’t have to wait until high school because the concepts are very simple.

Classical rhetoric, also known as the Art of Oratory, is a structured communication system. The writer or public speaker equipped with classical rhetorical tools knows how to invent, arrange, style, memorize, and deliver speeches with persuasive eloquence. These five tools are known as the Classical Canons.

1aqua-smInvention, classical canon #1, is the process of coming up with the debatable idea through experience, research, interviews, experiments, or any number of other methods to gather facts, statistics, laws, testimonies, or opinions. To keep your homeschool child from drawing a blank when you tell him to write a speech, give him a choice of three narrowly defined, contextual prompts taken from your past or present studies.

For instance, if you’re studying the American Revolution, you could give him the choice of inventing a speech on the Stamp Act, George Washington’s leadership, or military armaments of the period. While researching the topic, have him brainstorm many ideas that he will eventually reduce to three key points. Giving your homeschool child some structure will alleviate some of the stress of invention.

2aqua-smMaximizing the arrangement or disposition of the invented idea and supporting evidence is key for persuasive impact. The second canon of classical rhetoric is all about how you put together the data. Will you start your speech with the most important information, or will you hold it for your last and final thrust? Will you organize your invention topically, chronologically, or comparatively?

Given the same speech prompt, each child in your homeschool family will arrange the data differently, and that’s okay. Your goal is to give your children plenty of practice, so use good note-taking methods like outlining, post-it notes, or the whiteboard to show your child how to move the info around for a variety of persuasive results.

3aqua-smThe third classical canon, style or elocution, is the way in which you dress up your speech with figurative language like parallelism and alliteration to make speeches more entertaining and effective. Teach your child how to use strong action verbs, descriptive nouns, and unusual modifiers. Vary the sentence structure using questions, phrases, and exclamations to supplement the declarative sentences. Add dramatic flourishes such triples, and include some delayed gratification to keep the audience engaged and wanting to know more.

Create a style guide for your homeschool by making a checklist of all the stylistic techniques you want to see in your child’s writing and speeches, then have him grade himself after composing the first draft. Improve the final piece by adding what was missing.

4aqua-smClassical canon # 4, memorization is the step where you mentally internalize the invented and styled arrangement of words and ideas so that you can give the speech without notes. There are lots of memory techniques to try including learning the piece backwards (starting with the last paragraph and working your way back to the first paragraph) to the Roman room (mentally placing the parts of the speech on objects in the room so that when you give the speech you look at the piece of furniture and associate it with a certain point in the speech).

5aqua-smFinally, the fifth canon of classical rhetoric is delivery…the way in which you act out your persuasive intentions by using posture, vocal variety, pacing, eye contact, and pronunciation.

Will you show your child how to prepare a speech using the classical canons?

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-- Teach 3 Classical Appeals --

What are classical appeals?

In ancient Rome, stylistic devices made boring legislative debates compelling, so the student of a classical liberal arts education learned three classical appeals called ethos, logos, and pathos. In order to be persuasive, an orator needs to consider including at least one of each appeal in his speech. Teach your homeschool child all three classical appeals.

The ethical appeal convinces the audience of the authority or credibility of the public speaker. Personal experience, skill, or knowledge should be incorporated during the invention stage to build trust and respect.

Just like it sounds, the logical appeal uses reason to convey the veracity and soundness of the arguments. Here’s where all your hard work as a homeschool teacher of critical thinking skills pays off! Inductive and deductive reasoning, the syllogism, claims, and fallacies all play an important part in persuading the reader or audience to adopt your position.

An emotional appeal pulls on the heart strings and usually includes a compelling story to demonstrate danger, failure, success, or victory that will result from adopting or avoiding the topic of the speech, debatable idea. Vivid language choice and sensory details are key to the emotional appeal in that words can fire the imagination and evoke sympathy, disgust, or painful associations.

Teach your homeschool child how to include all three appeals of classical rhetoric in his speeches.

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-- Teach Speech --

Does your child suddenly become shy when asked to give a speech?

You’ve probably heard the popular statistic that more people would rather face the grave than give a speech, but if you prepare your homeschool child now by incorporating regular drill in classical rhetoric, your high school teen will be a confident, persuasive public speaker, fully equipped to respond to any verbal challenge.

Where do you start? Conversations from the earliest years are crucial. Resist the urge to baby-talk or dumb down your language and vocabulary choices just because you’re talking to a child. Kids are like sponges; they soak up all the great language, sentence structure, arguments, and delivery techniques that you regularly use, and they are natural imitators of adult behavior.

Storytelling is another way to prepare your homeschool child to give a simple speech that follows the classical canons of arrangement and style. Nearly every story written for the last 3000 years has followed the same linear narrative formula first documented by Aristotle, so if you’re reading and telling stories, your child will learn about arranging data from beginning to middle to end. But don’t be the only one telling stories; encourage your child to narrate stories to you and to siblings so that he gets in the habit of talking to an audience. Recitation of poetry and Bible verses is another good teaching tip for public speaking.

To quick start your homeschool child’s public speaking career, incorporate a daily three minute impromptu speech at the kitchen breakfast table. Keep a jar or basket of short speech prompts like quotes, phrases, or topics out for daily practice. Have each child in the family choose a speech prompt each morning to outline and deliver. You’ll be amazed at how this ritual will improve your child’s public speaking skills and confidence.

Historically speaking, there were three occasions for classical rhetoric involving three types of speeches: ceremonial, judicial, and deliberative. Delivered at special public occasions, ceremonial speeches commemorated grand openings or memorialized the deceased at funerals. Today, your homeschool child could write a ceremonial speech as a birthday salute or to entertain grandparents. Interpretive speeches where a drama is acted out by one or more children would qualify as a classic ceremonial speech.

Judicial speeches, also called forensics, are arguments that care about justice and injustice, exposing an affirmative (right) or negative (wrong) position on a past decision. Whereas judicial speeches care about the past, deliberative speeches are concerned with future action. Political platform and legislative speeches exhort or encourage certain behavior. Practically speaking, most speeches today merge the judicial and deliberate type as seen by the importance of past and future action in competitive debate speeches, Christian apologetics speeches, and extemporaneous speeches.

Finally, analyze famous historical speeches like Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Examine the structure, notice the language, identify the classical appeals, and determine whether the content satisfies the occasion of the speech.

Teach public speaking skills from an early age if you want your child to give confident speeches for life.

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-- Teach Debate --

Don’t be intimidated by teaching debate.

Once you learn the types and rules, you’ll move from novice debate coach to advanced judge, carefully guiding your homeschool child and later teen, in the classical rhetorical skill known as argumentation. First let’s look at the classical foundations for debate.

As you learned, two of the three classical occasions for giving a speech, judicial and deliberative, are merged today in the objectives and rules of debate. Judicial speeches had to do with judgments about past actions and whether they were right or wrong choices, while deliberate speeches exhorted for future right behavior. In both cases, the objective of the speech is to persuade the audience to make a judgment in favor of the debater.

Modern debate in the Supreme Court looks at past judicial decisions with implications for future laws. Debate in state and federal legislatures look at past and future policy. Even journalists on news programs host televised debates to discuss current issues with an eye on past actions and future choices. So, too, competitive homeschool debate starts with the historical status quo, makes a judgment, and proposes a solution for future change.

Team Policy Debate involves two teams made up of two partners on each team. Each year, the competitive league declares a national or international policy change called the resolution for which every team must adopt a topical position, show existing harms in the status quo, point out inherent flaws in the current policy, and propose a plan that solves the current problem. These four stock issues are called topicality, disadvantages, inherency, and solvency. The round lasts 90 minutes, and both teams need to be prepared to argue the affirmative and negative position.

Lincoln-Douglas is a two person debate where each side argues for the supremacy of a value. Shorter than team policy, the 45-minute LD round is more abstract in that it deals with big ideas rather than concrete government policy. Evidence can be more intellectual including literary and anecdotal sources.

In Parliamentary Debate, two, two-person teams are called factions; one faction takes the Government position on a policy while the other is called the Opposition. Unlike Team Policy Debate, the competitors don’t have the entire season to research and prepare their case; rather, the dynamic resolution changes with every round meaning research happens in the limited prep time after the resolution is announced. Parli debate is fast-pasted and not of the novice or faint of heart.

Although Public Forum Debate is not offered in competitive homeschool leagues, it is nonetheless a valuable exercise in critical thinking, argumentation, and public speaking if you can find someone in your community willing to debate current events or issues.

If your homeschooling plan makes it impossible for you to participate in league or community live debates, why not consider assigning your homeschool teen an editorial debate? Have him thoroughly research a current event, then write an opinion piece for the local newspaper. And if all else fails, practice debating skills with a newspaper around the kitchen table.

Practicing winsome debate skills with civility can be a fun family activity!

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-- Teach Delivery Techniques --

Delivery techniques can make or break a speech.

The world’s oldest stories, legends, fables, epics, poems, hymns, and speeches were all originally crafted to be recited or performed in community, The fifth and final canon of classical rhetoric, delivery techniques are physical tools that add value to your persuasive argument.

What teaching strategies should you use? Consider your audience when deciding on your delivery techniques. From where are they starting? What do they know? What do they believe? Teach your homeschool child to make an immediate connection with the audience by demonstrating that he’s done his homework and knows what they need so that his message resonates on a deep level. Teach him to speak for change.

Teach your child that posture, movement, eye contact, and intentional body language contributes to the overall tone of the speech and ethical authority of the public speaker. Articulation, repetition, pitch, volume, and speed of delivery also greatly enhance the speech and add persuasive weight to your ideas.

Have your child practice the speech in front of the mirror. Take a video of his delivery, and gently critique the weaknesses and praise the strengths. Have him maintain eye contact with every member of his audience for a few seconds until he mentally knocks them down like bowling pins, swiveling his view from left to right and right to left until everyone feels that he’s only talking to him or her. Delivery techniques are crucial to the successful application of classical rhetoric because charisma, passion, and energy can make even a so-so speech seem persuasive.

As you teach speech in your homeschool, don't forget to polish delivery techniques to perfection.

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-- Teach Classical Persuasion --

What exactly is classical persuasion?

Before we get to the structure of classical persuasion, consider the value of setting the future stage by teaching your youngest homeschool child the basics of social etiquette. When he is older and ready to argue persuasively, he will have already mastered some effective tools of classical rhetoric.

What manners and conventions should you teach? When greeting a stranger, teach your child to firmly grasp their hand, look them in the eye, and repeat their name with a little ‘nice to meet you’ phrase. Such learned behavior conveys honesty, authenticity, transparency, confidence, and trust. Teach your homeschool child to be respectful to his elders, take accurate messages, use appropriate gratitude, and show common courtesies.

Persuasion comes naturally for most of us because when we want something, we work hard to get it! This includes trying all kinds of tactics to coax the reward from mom and dad. But the persuasive child has no clue about the structure of the argument. All he knows is a common advertising and marketing maxim: “what’s in it for me?” This ”me attitude” is at the heart of the persuasive argument, and if you can teach your homeschool teen to appropriately answer that question in the back of the audience’s mind, he’ll seal the deal and win them over to his point of view.

Historically, persuasive arguments followed a seven-step specific format beginning with the exordium or introduction where the speaker exhorts the audience to listen and consider his claim. Next followed narration where the public speaker gave the background and summarized the statement of facts. After that, the orator moved into partition where he forecast or previewed the topics to be discussed. These first three steps form the opening portion of the speech.

Next, teach your teen to move into the body of the speech where he confirms his argument. In classical rhetoric, we call step four conformation. Refutation comes after conformation as you address the audience’s unspoken objections and consider the merit of alternatives. In step six, ask a few rhetorical, or ’suppose that...' questions, to get the audience thinking about the possibilities and ramifications.

The final step is the conclusion, also known as the peroration, where you teach your homeschool student to review the arguments and echo back to the claims made at the beginning of the persuasive speech.

Teach your homeschooler the elements of classical persuasion so that he can address life’s biggest issues with clarity, grace, and skill.