Manner of Speaking: Helping Kids Tame Their Butterflies

Manner of Speaking: Helping Kids Tame Their Butterflies

Children and Toastmasters learn from each other.

By Shimali Agarwal, Barbara Krasner, CTM, and Nora Nerses, CTM

Ten-year-old Micah sat at the conference room table, arms folded across his chest. No way was he going to get up and talk! No matter what his father told him about the “Get Those Butterflies Out of My Stomach!” public speaking session at Lucent Technologies’ “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.” No matter what he promised his dad. But finally, we three members of Cosmopolitan Toastmasters club in Whippany, New Jersey, tossed out a Table Topic he might be able to answer with confidence. “Tell us something about your siblings. Do you have any?” Micah raised his hand. He stood up from his chair and swung around to the front. “Do I have any brothers or sisters?” His hands gripped the table’s edge. “No!” He smiled. When his dad entered the room later and asked, “Did you speak?” Micah proudly responded, “Yes!”

For Micah, just the one-word response to a Table Topic was a defining moment. He had indeed spoken. It was also a defining moment for the three of us hosting the session. How could we get everyone to participate?

Table Topics as the Focus
We started with the program by welcoming all the kids and asking them to introduce themselves, and then we moved into Table Topics. The three of us rotated roles as Toast master, Topicsmaster and evaluator during the four sessions we were hosting. As a warm-up in each session, we asked each participant to name their favorite and least favorite school subjects. This helped the kids, who ranged in age from 8 to 14, to find kindred spirits in a group of strangers.

To help kids understand the format of the sessions, we role-played a Table Topic, a response and an evaluation. Our purpose was to focus on positive things the kids did – for example, eye contact with the audience, body talk, vocal variety – so we could encourage them to speak on their feet.

We carefully chose our Table Topics, 10 in all, including: “Should dogs be allowed to eat in restaurants?”; “If there were an invasion from Mars, what would you do?”; “Should comic books be allowed as book reports?” and “Some say, ‘Dogs drool and cats rule.’ Do you agree or disagree?” We received many interesting, and often comical or passionate responses. In fact, we had to limit the number of responses to certain popular questions, such as, “Should homework be banned?” 

A Win-Win Learning Experience
The innocence and pure creativity of these kids astounded and exhausted us. We learned how to better reach kids and how a statement, in this case a Table Topic, could be interpreted so differently. We learned to be ready for any challenge, such as an overeager speaker. Most importantly, we observed progress. We encouraged each kid to speak at least once and those who spoke more than that demonstrated distinct improvement in their confidence, poise and projection. In fact, we specifically asked them how they felt about their second speech versus the first, and they acknowledged the relative ease of their second time speaking. No more butterflies! We also refined our ability to provide substantive, supportive feedback to continually encourage their speaking.

But the learning didn’t stop there. The three of us learned from each other. Each of our styles differed and throughout the sessions we gained greater appreciation of each of our skills. For instance, Barbara was nurturing and often asked a young speaker how he felt when coming up to speak, how those butterflies were doing. The child perked up when talking about it. Nora, the most experienced evaluator among us, gave us a high bar to reach on providing helpful feedback. Shimali provided good insights on poise and projection, and motivated the children to share their feelings, beliefs and ideas.

Next Steps
Our club is looking forward to our next Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day event. We are exploring opportunities with local area high schools to start a Toastmasters Youth Leadership program. Butterflies, be gone! 

Shimali Agarwal, Barbara Krasner, CTM, and Nora Nerses, CTM, are members of Cosmopolitan Toastmasters club in Whippany, New Jersey.