When I was in elementary school, you know about a hundred years ago, I performed in the drama club and chorus. Drama club was open for students in all grade levels, and our chorus, the Colt Chorale, was only open to those in 4th and 5th grade through tryouts. I’ve never been a great singer, but still somehow got in. I was just one of the chorus, I never had a solo or anything, but I still had a wonderful time in both groups and they are some of the highlights of my elementary school days.
We often practiced after school, and Colt Chorale practice was also before school especially as we got close to performances. Our chorus director would give us a tape (yes, a tape, that we had to use a cassette player to listen on) with the words to all the songs. I’m sure my parents just loved it because I listened to them non-stop until I had the songs learned. And of course, at home I just listened on my boom box (does anyone have one of those anymore?) rather than with headphones, so the entire family knew the songs.
And the dance moves. We had some killer dance moves with the songs too!
But through all of that I learned a lot. As I got older and had to give speeches and presentations for school, I realized that those crazy, fun days of chorus actually taught me a few skills that helped with public speaking.
Open your mouth
Annunciation and pronunciation are so important when you are giving a speech. One of the first skills we learned in drama and chorus was to open our mouths. Open them wide. Exaggerate how much you open your mouth for every letter you speak. If you are supposed to hear the letter in the word, then make sure we hear it. There are very few letters that, when pronounced well, your mouth will be almost closed. We were told for every “o” our mouth should look like the letter.
When you open your mouth wide to properly say the words, you stop yourself from mumbling. You may have the next great speech that will go down in history, but if no one can understand what you are saying then it won’t have the same effect. Watch videos of historical speeches and notice how well they pronounce their words. If your listeners are trying to figure out what you are saying, then they are focused on your words, not your message.
Don’t trail off/Be confident
Have you ever listened to someone talk and the end of their sentence just gets lost? Or maybe they forget the last letters on a lot of theirs words. When we were in chorus, our chorus instructor emphasized to always finish strong. This typically happens as speakers near the end of a paragraph, they are trying to finish it off and their voice gets quieter as they go, or the last words are mumbled because they are already thinking of the next sentence. If you have to, again, exaggerate the last letter. For example, if the last word in a sentence is “going”, then don’t say goin’, say it loud and proud, goinG. It may sound silly to you, but you want to make sure your words are heard properly.
Don’t do this! Those last words, those last letters, are important in a sentence, or they wouldn’t be there. Think about the power behind some of the biggest speeches in our country’s history. The “I Have a Dream” speech comes to mind. It’s always said in such a powerful way. What if he wasn’t as confident in what he was saying? Would it have had the same power? Would it have made the same impact? We can’t say for sure, but I would think not. If King Jr. was trailing off his sentences, leaving his listeners guessing to that last word because he mumbled, then the message would not have been as clear.
Nose itches? Too bad. Hair in your face? Deal with it. Feet getting tired? Don’t fidget. Even at the young age we were in elementary school, this was drilled into our heads. The only movements we were supposed to make was our choreographed movements. And now that you are reading this, I bet you are getting itchy and fidgety, right? Mind over matter. If you can stand still when giving a speech, you seem to have more power, more authority, more confidence. A person fidgeting is seen as someone who doesn’t want to be there.
It’s not easy. I know it’s not easy. In practice, I remember our chorus instructor calling people out for fidgeting. But I’ve gone back and watched some of the videos from my chorus days that I’ve had converted and I have to say, we looked good! You hardly ever saw someone moving when they weren’t supposed to.
Practice makes perfect
As a chorus, we were invited many times to go perform on the Tomorrowland Stage at Walt Disney World. And let me tell you, that didn’t come easy. We worked our butts off for that honor. Like I said, we practiced before and after school. We had songs to learn. Dance moves to memorize. Dress rehearsals. Sound rehearsals. Light rehearsals. We had to learn the exact moment to leave the stands when we were supposed to go on stage. Costume changes. Sets to build. There are so many aspects that go into a perfect performance.
Depending on the type of speech you are doing, there can be many parts to learn and perfect as well. Of course, there is learning the actual speech. And are you planning to do hand gestures or movements anywhere? Will you use cue cards or have it fully memorized? What will you wear? Do you have any visuals to go with the presentation? Figure all this out, then practice, practice, practice. If you want to make the biggest impact, you need to be confident. Practice this so many times that it comes natural to you. As you are talking, if you get interrupted, you shouldn’t even have to really think about where you were and what is next.
True story: on the stage at Disney one year, our music completely cut out for about 45 seconds. But we had practiced the show so much, we didn’t even miss a beat. Everyone just kept going, like the music was there. We also kept watch on our instructor for her cues, and no one even noticed that there was an interruption. It was amazing, at that moment, to really understand why we practiced so hard (and why our chorus instructor was so intent on us always having eyes on her!).