This Saturday, Nov. 24, is the birthday of Dale Carnegie, the man who revolutionized the teaching of public speaking in the United States.
This occasion was made all the more significant to me because of a letter I received from a sixth-grade teacher who was responding to my column about newspaper weather maps. She said she uses an opaque projector to show each day's map on a screen, and then has a different student every day stand before the class and play Willard Scott by describing the national weather scene. Not only does this reinforce their knowledge of meteorology and U.S. geography, but it gives them an opportunity to stand up and speak in front of a group as well.Now that's what Dale Carnegie had in mind back in 1912 when, with very little money to his name and very little success in anything he had tried so far, he began teaching public speaking to adults at a YMCA in New York's Harlem. He continued to teach and refine his approach until his death in 1955, with the result that over 3 million people today are graduates of his course, and his book "How To Win Friends and Influence People" has sold over 15 million copies and been translated into 29 languages.
Carnegie knew, just as the sixth-grade teacher who wrote me knows, that one's self-confidence in speaking before a group comes from a warm and receptive environment for speaking, from choosing a topic about which you feel knowledgeable, and from becoming accustomed to public speaking through practice.
Yet, practice in public speaking - which should be a part of every classroom in every grade and subject - has been given such low priority over the last generation or so that executives today commonly report of job applicants who are well schooled and skilled in the technical aspects of a business, but who have no ability whatever in conveying or presenting their ideas orally to others. And the fear of having to make a speech in public remains at the top of the list of things that Americans dread most, even ahead of tooth extraction and root canal work.
So, how do we go about developing our children's self-confidence in public speaking and encouraging them to overcome this most common fear?
First, I think, we should recognize that, as Carnegie said, "You can't learn to speak in public without speaking in public any more than a person can learn to swim without getting in the water." We have to create opportunities wherever possible for our children to practice this essential skill, and then shower them with encouragement and praise for their efforts. It is common to have children read aloud to their parents at home, but, unfortunately, having children present or perform aloud some story or poem or speech they have practiced and struggled with on their own is not.
There are also opportunities awaiting outside the home. I remember so well how my father entered me in an oratorical contest that was sponsored by the local Optimist Club when I was in the seventh grade. Perhaps I remember it so well because I really wanted nothing to do with it at the time, and the practice sessions at home cut deeply into those hours I thought could be much better spent playing basketball.
But today I firmly believe that those oratorical contests did more to alter the course of my life - to expand my options and horizons - than any other experience of my school days. And, Dad, if I've forgotten to tell you over the past few decades: Thanks.