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Fear of Public Speaking Is Preventable — If You Start Early

Out of the mouth of babes … can come polished public speaking, provided they get early coaching and plenty of practice.

I’ll tell you a secret about corporate executives: They’re just as afraid of public speaking as you are.

Over the past two decades, I’ve worked with CEOs and senior executives of some of the world’s biggest brands. That confidence they project at the podium? They weren’t born with it. The truth is, public speaking is a skill — one they had to develop, just like everyone else.

Now, as a father, I’ll tell you another secret: Your kids don’t have to grow up fearing public speaking. I’m no child development expert, but through some simple coaching, I helped my own son, Sean, develop his speaking skills before he ever enrolled in school. In fact, the earlier you start teaching your own child to look people in the eye, shake hands, and stand with confidence, the better.

At least, that’s my parenting philosophy. Because of my experience with skittish executives — and, admittedly, my own dislike of public speaking — I wanted Sean to be able to present himself and his ideas with confidence.

Parenting Strategies for Building Confidence

Don’t despair if your child clings to you in social situations. Almost all young kids do. But do take it as a sign that your son or daughter could use some coaching on public speaking:

1. Encourage kids to introduce themselves.

I started to do this with my son when he was four or five years old. Whether we were with extended family, friends, or work colleagues, I encouraged him to look people in the eye, offer a firm handshake (those tiny hands!), and say, “Hi, my name is Sean.”

While my wife thought I was nuts, Sean learned that he didn’t need me (or his mom) to present himself to others. After he got the hang of it, we worked on the basics of conversation. I taught him to respond to questions like, “How are you?” and that if someone else didn’t initiate a conversation, he should try to do so.

My son is now 16 years old. He’s able to go into any situation — from meeting new friends to interacting with teachers to attending seminars — and strike up a conversation with anyone, regardless of how new or imposing they might be.

2. Teach them to speak with clarity.

Volume, articulation, and poise make a big difference when it comes to public speaking, and like most things, they’re easier to learn as a kid than as an adult.

Around the same age, we taught Sean what it means to properly enunciate his words, how to speak in a commanding (but not shouting) way, and how to formulate his ideas clearly. It wasn’t necessarily our intention, but we also taught him the proper way to respond to others, such as with “yes,” rather than “yup” or “yeah.”

Of course, as a teenager, Sean sometimes slips slang into his speech, but he’s confident in what he says and how he says it. What’s important is that he can differentiate between situations where slang is acceptable and those where formality is required.

3. Don’t let students avoid presentations — practice is key.

Most schools do a decent job of getting students comfortable presenting to their peers. As we all know, though, those who don’t participate don’t benefit.

If your son or daughter is shy, he or she might not actively participate in classroom discussions. Students don’t need to chime in on every debate, but if they make silence a habit, they risk missing a critical learning curve. Before young Johnny or Tanisha needs to get in front of an audience of thousands, help them build confidence by practicing with peers in a classroom setting.

Kids need to understand the value of practice when it comes to presentations. Whether it’s an interview for college, a job, or a small business loan, or a presentation in front of the entire student body, people can tell who has rehearsed and who hasn’t. One of the best CEOs and public speakers I know practices his speeches 26 times before delivering them, and guess what? He nails it every time. Something as simple as learning to practice three key points for five minutes in the mirror at a young age can put your son or daughter over the top with a college application, job interview, or promotion.

Even though my son is just 16 years old, he’s wowed interviewers with his handshake, poise, and researched answers to their questions. I’ve seen people mistake him for a 26-year-old parent because he speaks and carries himself like an adult.

Whatever my son does when he grows up is his decision, and I’ll support his choice. But I’ll say this: Regardless of which path he chooses, he’s developed skills — not to mention confidence — that will benefit him for the rest of his life. And if he does become an executive? He’s already spoken to an audience of thousands; that part of the job will be a walk in the park.

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