The more public speaking and communication coaching I do with my younger students – all of whom range in age from 5 to 10 – the more I can see the effects of how our listeners interpret not only what we are saying but how we are saying it, from a very young age.

Of course, we can’t expect the average 5 and 6-year-old child to be able to communicate like a seasoned professional, using body language, vocal variety, and of course, the all-important content as they’re presenting their show-and-tell to their classmates. However, it is my experience that we can begin the process of giving them the tools to be able to do it from an early age with confidence, engaging their audience without fear of judgement.

When they’re shown what to do, children as young five can not only ‘see’ and ‘hear’ how they sound, they can ‘feel’ what their listeners might be experiencing as they’re speaking because they can interpret ‘ping-back’ correctly when they’re shown how.

How did we do this?

I asked the children to do two exercises – one at home and the other in class.

  • The first was to observe people as they were out and about during the week. They were to report back, using demonstrations of what they had seen; how people walked, gestured, sat, and interacted using only body language and facial expressions.
  • The second was to ‘hear’ how our voice can come across as ‘bland’ when we speak without body language and facial expressions.

What did the children see and hear?

Exercise 1 – Body language and facial expressions

One of the most interesting demonstrations was when a student showed us her observation of a teenager sitting down, hunched over a mobile phone. It was clear in the way in which she was showing us, that the teenager was not aware of their surroundings at all. The only thing that existed was the phone and what was in it.

As a parent of a teenager whose his phone seems to be surgically attached to his hand, this was particularly interesting to me. What hit home was how much our kids are missing of the world around them when they’re out and about. They don’t seem to notice many things including dangers; road awareness as they cross roads with their noses firmly planted in their phones.

About ten years ago when I was commuting to work by train, I narrowly saved a young man who was wholly engrossed in his phone while listening to music, from stepping in front of a car that sped past us at traffic lights, his device impaired his peripheral vision. We were waiting for the little green man to signal that we could cross, but the young man was so absorbed in what he was doing his brain had somehow registered that it was safe to move. I grabbed his jacket and yanked him off the road yelling “NO!” as loudly as I could so he could hear me above his music. In his shock, all he could say was, “Thank you! I’m so sorry!” over and over again. The lesson meant that I incorporated that experience to encourage all of my students to be phone/road aware.

Another student demonstrated how they observed poor posture of a person that had walked passed them, the man’s shoulders were hunched over, his neck thrust forward as he shuffled on unsteady legs. As a class, we then mimicked the walker’s pose as we moved around the room. Everyone found it uncomfortable and when quizzed, described the different negative emotional states they felt as they maintained their poor posture; depression, frustration, anger, embarrassment, and sadness, which immediately disappeared when they corrected their posture.

Exercise 2 – how we sound

We demonstrated how our voice could sound ‘bland’ when we don’t use any form of body language, or facial expressions when we speak.

Try the below points and see if you can hear the difference in your tone. Don’t worry about appearing, strange; this is merely an exercise to look at how we need to use all the tools in our communication box to get what we would like our listeners to hear across correctly.

  • Firstly, use the example of saying ‘hello’ without any movement of any kind, just your voice – in class everyone sounded monotone.
  • Secondly, say ‘hello’ with only a smile (not a huge grin, just a small smile) – in class almost everyone found their voice sounded friendlier and had lifted in pitch.
  • Finally, add more communication techniques by saying ‘hello’ with both a smile and a wave of a hand – again almost everyone in class found that not only did their voice raise in tone, but they appeared more friendly and approachable to their listeners.

We then did the same exercise when asking for a hug as the example. Again, as with the above, give it a go. You are likely to feel somewhat strange when doing this exercise, however, we chose this example since it has a very pronounced movement – we also laughed a lot at first.

  • Ask “May I have a hug please?” without using any movement or facial expressions – everyone in class sounded monotone and got a resounding “no” in response from their peers.
  • Then, use only your arm movement and hand gestures to represent a request for a ‘hug’, without using any words or facial expressions – in class, everyone felt that the action alone was strange because they instinctively wanted to add facial expressions, and they found it difficult to interpret what was being asked of them.
  • Lastly, verbally request a ‘hug’ not only using physical movement, but also use your natural facial expressions – in class, each child noticed that their voice automatically changed to a softer tone.

What did the children notice after they did the exercises?

Independently, the kids could ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the difference in the way in which they personally felt. Not only when they did their own demonstration, but when their classmates respectively did theirs. They were able to distinguish whether they felt connected or disconnected as a speaker was presenting to them. They also recognised whether something ‘felt right’ as they did each portion of the communication, responding to the ‘ping-back’ from the audience.

All of the children recognised how their voice changed with each additional aspect of communication. It was a fascinating exercise for the kids as they registered an understanding of how important it is when conversing to use not only their voices, but also their other inherent tools of communication – so often not used, or used poorly.

It’s from experience that I know we can start to develop effective communication skills in our children very early on, which will help them to feel more self-confident throughout their school years. Particularly, as two positive key components of self-confidence are self-worth and self-empowerment, both of which have a higher chance of continuing to develop and grow as our children move through each stage of their life when encouraged early on. The positive knock-on effects are then more likely go into their adulthood to produce more self-assured grown-ups.

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