Small Audiences

The next time you’re nervous about giving a manual speech to your club, be grateful that you’re not facing an even tougher crowd: kids. Unlike most adults, children let a speaker know exactly what they’re feeling at all times.

As a storyteller, I do a fair amount of speaking to groups of children, whether as an emcee, performer or presenter. So I’ve learned a few things about what makes kids’ faces light up – and what doesn’t.

The most important thing to remember about working with children is the age-old rule first stated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago: Know your audience. Sometimes, speakers behave as if kids are simply short adults. They do everything they do so well with grown-up audiences without recognizing that in many ways, kids experience the world differently than adults do. They have different needs and interests. The more we know about how children think and communicate, the better we can reach them.

Sit tight. Kids usually like sitting on the floor – even young teens. If it works for your space, try it. If you’ve got a small group, I encourage you to sit down there with them. If you can’t, try not to tower above them, causing them to strain their necks and stare at your chin. Instead, pull up a chair.

Warming up. Unless you’re speaking in an extremely formal setting, it’s usually a good idea to mix with the crowd a little before you speak. This way they get a sense of you, and you of them. This is even more useful when working with children. When both speaker and audience share some ground rules in advance through behavior, sense of humor and tone, your talk is bound to go more smoothly.

Be concrete. If a picture is worth a thousand words, word pictures are worth millions. Try speaking in vivid terms rather than in broad generalities. For example, if you’re talking about global warming, numbers and statistics won‘t mean a lot to kids. You might want to tell little ones a story about Suzy, the polar bear who lost her home as the ice caps melted. For older children, find real-life examples they can relate to, and help them feel they are right there in the story by using physical details (sweat pouring down someone’s forehead) instead of statements that are less specific (it was 100 degrees in the shade).

Visual aids. Speaking of pictures, visuals are even more important with children than they are with adults. Children have a shorter attention span and may be distracted in the middle of an explanation. But if the pictures are there, they can always turn to them. Large, crisp, enlarged color photos or professional-looking PowerPoint presentations are fine. Just be aware that any time you have to darken a room, you risk losing some of your audience’s attention. Handouts are also a plus.

Break it up. Children spend a lot of time with media that decrease attention span, whether it’s MTV or a video game. Don’t assume that they can follow an hour-long discussion.

If you can schedule a break in the middle of a long program, do so; otherwise, build breaks into your talk. Change the tempo. Play some music or bring on another person to do a short segment. Play a quick game. Anything that allows your audience to shift gears every 10 to 40 minutes or so, depending on their age, will help them focus longer.

Encourage participation. The younger the children, the more they love call-and-response. Toastmasters are often encouraged to start off a speech with a question; with kids, you may want to plan short questions throughout your speech, or solicit comments.

One of the best speakers I ever saw “checked in” with her audience midway through her presentation, asking them what they liked most about what she had done or said up to that point. Just be aware that children are very frank and even more unpredictable than adults when it comes to input. If you don’t have much time to spare, be prepared to cut off participation before everyone has had their say. 

                    “Sometimes, speakers behave as if kids are simply short adults.”

Get them moving. One form of participation is to get kids on their feet. Can everybody stretch or do a dance at their seats? Can someone write on the board for you? Do you have props that children can bring up as needed?

I once asked six children to come up to the front of the room before I told a story. At certain points in the performance, I gave each of them key words to remember, telling them that they would be responsible for repeating them as needed. This made the story more fun for everyone. I specifically chose children who looked like they needed a boost at that point in the program – but who I could tell wouldn’t misbehave once they were facing the group.

Keep it calm. Stimulation is important, but we don’t want our audiences to run wild. I learned this the hard way early in my career by over-stimulating a group of 200 middle-schoolers. It took several minutes, and several teachers, to regain control once I’d wandered through the audience and got them riled up. I quickly learned that balance and moderation are key here, as in most things.

Learn the language – to a point. Is it cool to be “cool” or it is better to be “hot”? A bit of teenage slang is useful for a speaker, but some rules apply. First, check with a teen “expert” to be sure you’re using the words correctly. Then, don’t use too many of them. It’s like wearing clothes that are too young for us – we end up looking silly rather than fitting in.

Let them go. Sometimes, just sometimes, you need to lose a child in order to find her. That is, some children listen quite well even though they don’t appear to. I will never forget the story a colleague told me of a child wandering around the back of a classroom while the woman performed a folktale. The next day, who could recite every word of that story? The child who listened best when her body was moving. As long as children are not disrupting the group, you may need to let them listen in their own way.

Send it home. Have you ever asked a child, “What did you do in school today?” only to be told, “Nothing”? “Nothing” usually means nothing memorable. But if a child comes home with a sticker, a bookmark, a vegetable dye tattoo or a drawing she made of something the speaker talked about, she’ll have something concrete to talk about herself. The only take-home I don’t generally recommend is food – that is, unless you’ve checked ahead of time that children are allowed to have it. Some parents prefer their young children not be fed without their knowledge.

One final note: I began this piece by noting that there are many differences between children and adults. But you may have noticed that to some extent, these suggestions apply to all audiences. Keep them in mind whenever you speak and you can be assured you’ll reach not only kids but the adult listener’s inner child, as well. 

Caren S. Neile, Ph.D., ATMS/CL, directs the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University and is a member of the Boca Raton Toastmasters club. Reach her at