Qualities of Great Speakers: Building Student Speaking Skills

What are the qualities of a great speaker?

Who are the great speakers we can model?

If you mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr., what makes his a historic speaker? What are the qualities that he exudes in his speech writing and public speaking? What are some of the aspects of his public speaking we want our students to model?

What were the words or phrases that stuck with you throughout the speech?

How does King use his voice and body language to captivate his audience?

How does MLK utilize repetition in his speech to leave an impression on the listener?

What other “moves” does MLK use in his speech to make a lasting impression on his listeners?

Check out a list of Rhetorical Devices and Strategies that King uses throughout his speech.

Now, let’s look at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration Speech in January 1961.

Whereas MLK wrote his own speeches, JFK wrote his speech with the help of his speech writer, Ted Sorenson. The phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you; but what you can do for your country” was taken from JFK’s headmaster at Choate School when he was a student. He headmaster was known to say, “Ask not what your school can do for your; but what you can do for your school.”

What public speaking skills does JFK bring to the conversation?

How are JFK and MLK similar and different at orators?

The majority of famous speakers today draw inspiration and borrow devices from great public speakers of the past like Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.

The voice is unique in its ability to communicate. There is no one good speaking voice, but most audiences agree that a pleasant, expressive voice has certain pleasing qualities. A good speaking voice is not born, but developed through training and practice. Through proper use of breathing, resonance, articulation, and pitch we can communicate more effectively.

Your voice and the way that you speak says a lot about you.

Your voice is your most influential tool in a speech situation.

Similar to reading, students are expected to learn public speaking in secondary school. But many of our students are not comfortable speaking in front of the whole class and do not understand that listening requires a person to give their undivided attention to the speaker (eye contact, body at rest, mouth closed, all distractions put away).  Many of us will teach or are already teaching ELL students or students with limited English speaking skills along with student who are proficient speakers. How do we support all of our students as public speakers? 

Speaking and Listening is part of the Common Core and starting by the first grade, “students are expected to know and be able to do the following during small- and whole-group discussions: follow participation rules, build on others’ comments, and ask clarifying questions.” By middle and high school the conversations and group work is more demanding. Speaking and listening must go beyond the “turn and talk” or “think pair share” opportunities we offer students during class activities. Students must also be able to present information to small groups and large audiences. Students can utilize technology and podcast or video their presentations too.

 What are creative ways that you can have students practice speaking and build their communication skills?  

Our job is to excite students about the world, to help them see the role that they can play in making society a better place, to express their ideas powerfully, to see that our content area is about real world problems, issues, and possible solutions. Our content areas should show students the world, not just tell them about it. Our curriculum needs to include role plays, simulations, debates, formal speeches, and demonstrations. Screen-casts, podcasts, and video projects are all great venues that allow students to utilize speaking and listening skills.


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