children help develop our speaking skills

How children develop our speaking skills

by Elizabeth Toohig
in Blog
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Talk with young children

Did you realise that talking with children – especially young children – is an excellent way to practise and hone your speaking skills? This article explores 5 speaking skills that children help us to develop.

At the start of my teaching career, I held the perception that my role was to teach and the children’s role was to learn. But soon it was me who was learning valuable life lessons from them! I have so much to thank them for in developing my knowledge and skills about speaking and presenting effectively. They helped me to uncover my ability to speak with clarity, confidence and engagement – as well as providing numerous anecdotes for my talks!

ThoughtThought – one talk, one message

So often a great talk is lost because the speaker hides the key message within numerous other messages. When I was a head teacher, I remember a concerned parent coming to me with a problem. Everyday, they asked their five-year-old to go upstairs, get dressed, tidy their bed and brush their teeth, but when they returned downstairs with their school bag ready to leave, none of it had happened. Why?

It’s because of an information overload! When giving young children instructions, adults learn that relying on their ability to process multiple complex instructions leads to disaster. As adults and speakers, we so often do the same with our talks and presentations. I have listened to many talks that had the potential to be truly great, had the speaker just followed the simple guidance of one talk, one message. Can you summarise the message of your talk in one sentence of 12 words or less?

reasonReason – be clear about your ‘why?’

Have you ever answered a child’s question, only for them to immediately respond with “why?” And then for them to respond to every attempt in your next series of answers with, “But… why?”

Why do they do this? They are curious, hungry for knowledge and they want things to make sense. It is no different for your audience. However, by the time we reach adulthood, we have been socialised out of asking ‘why?’ (even though most of the time we are thinking it). To deliver a talk that leaves the audience thinking that they have received and understood all the information they need, you need to consider the ‘why’s’ that your audience will be asking, and provide the answers within your talk. A great way to develop this ability is to note all the questions you are asked following a talk or presentation and review them later to see how you could have answered them within your talk.

engagementEngagement – power of facial expressions

When words fail a child, we can often still understand what they want through their facial expressions. They are totally natural and often disarming. I know that at times I have been won over by a child’s endearing smile and lured into giving into their requests, even when my logical brain is telling me I should say no. Children are natural masters of speaking to us through facial expression before using words. They pause, giving you their best heart-melting smile, before begging “please.” The look before the words has a much greater impact on the listener. When telling your anecdotes, remember that they will be made more powerful by using facial expressions to convey emotions and reactions, before you even say the words.

anchorAnchor – awesome anecdotes

Personal anecdotes are a great way to anchor your points in the minds of your audience. Anecdotes that involve children are easy to relate to regardless of gender or age, as we were all children once. It is one thing that you and all the members of your audience have in common. These anecdotes have the benefit of showing that you are human, showing your vulnerability and adding humour to a heavy subject. Also, something that you might struggle to say can be given to a child within your anecdote. For example….

take-awayTake-away – simple language

We might try to side-step answering sensitive or complex questions that can be challenging. Questions like ‘where do babies come from?’ or ‘how does a computer work?’ are not asked by children to catch us out. Answering them by giving them the information they need and can cope with leaves the child satisfied. Using simple language makes this much easier. Only introducing the relevant vocabulary as they need it enables them to build on this knowledge later. It is the same for an audience. They do not want to have the full in-depth explanation when all they need are the headlines. Bombarding them with detailed technical or complex language can leave them feeling inadequate. Now, go through your talk and ask yourself, ‘Would a ten-year-old understand this?’ If not, then find a simpler way to express it. The audience will thank you for making it clear and easy to follow.

Look out for these strategies in action when you next talk to a child or watch other adults talking to children. Embrace the challenge of their questions, knowing that each answer you give is a chance to further develop your own speaking skills.

In another article I explore how children can help us develop our ability to answer unexpected or curveball questions in a question and answer session or at an interview.

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