Originally Published in The Age, 26 Feb 2007
An oral exam judges far more than just the words that come out of your mouth.
The preparation for an oral exam, say for SAC (school assessed coursework), is much the same as for a speech for a social occasion – you need to be clear about why you are presenting, to whom you are presenting and for how long. You need to do your research, make sure that your material is relevant and that you can find connections with the audience.
If the oral is on an issue, you may need to give the class the trigger – that is, the event – that began the issue (unless it is a perennial issue). T he recent controversy about euthanasia is such an issue, triggered by media coverage of Dr. John Elliott’s “assisted suicide”.
You should indicate the main players in the issue. Usually there are two sides, but there can be more. Unless your teacher has indicated that you should be one-sided, you should indicate both sides but come down clearly on the one you support. One way you can do this is to mention the other side’s views and then counter or rebut them.
Develop your arguments clearly, using only persuasive techniques that are considered “fair” in language analysis.
For example, use rhetorical questions, but don’t use denigration of the other side. Use appeals to family values and repetition, if appropriate, but don’t use hyperbole.
Use some statistics, but not more than three figures as your audience will lose the impact of them. Use an anecdote and especially use a future scenario. These can be very powerful, especially if accompanied by an analogy.
If the oral is for a text, depending on the teacher’s direction, decide on an aspect that will interest you and the class. If it does not need to relate directly to the text, there are many good approaches – including the life of the author, other texts by the author, the setting and context of the text. Looking at symbols and major motifs (such as the kite in The Kite Runner) can make great orals.
If the oral needs to be on a passage of the text, choose one that has some central themes and/or character revelation. Better still is one that has great dialogue. It is good to quote from the text and even hold the text in your hand. If you do, still look up and “read” it, using much expression; the more the better, as long as it does not sound melodramatic. If you quote dialogue, use the voices of the characters, even using any accents, if relevant.
Finally, make some links to the text as a whole or explain the significance of your chosen passage in the context of the whole.
Whatever your SAC is focused on, there are some principles that apply to all speeches. Note these and incorporate them in your speech. You must structure your speech carefully and signal that structure. When you open, say something interesting, even striking. You must grab the audience’s attention. It should be relevant and memorable.
Do not start with: “I am going to . . .” That’s boring! You don’t even need to say the topic. That can be on the whiteboard or on a slide (next week is about using visual aids effectively).
After the introduction, indicate what you are going to say. This is the first summary and is very important as the audience has only your words, voice and gestures to follow your content. In a five-minute speech, make about four to five points at the most. That means about a minute a point. As you need to speak no faster than 120 words a minute, that means you need only about 600 words for a five-minute oral SAC.
Each of the body points also needs to be stated clearly, explained and illustrated, either from the text or from the issue. The art of keeping the class interested is to relate the material to the class. For example, if the topic is capital punishment, ask the class how they would feel if one of their family were part of the Bali Nine? Or ask them what they would do if they were Wendy in In the Lake in the Woods. Each point needs to be linked to the next one if possible, just like in good essay writing. Once you are finished, sum up what you have said again and to lead into your conclusion.
This is the most important part of your speech. Think about it carefully. Think about the words you will use and the sound of those words. Include some passion and the class will feel it. Keep the words simple and choose words that sound good together. Remember: simple language; complex ideas. Repetition and alliteration are great in speeches, as are metaphors. Know the start and finish off by heart, so you can look at the class as you speak without reading from notes. Vary your voice as much as possible. It will add interest and keep the listeners’ interest. Your notes should be small and held in one hand only so you can make natural gestures. Or you should put your notes on a lectern and practise “ready, aim, fire”, by looking at them in silence when you need them, looking up and firing at the class.
Your content carries the least of your message; most is carried by your body language and voice variety. So remember to stand tall, take your time, look your audience in the eye, smile and sound confident. You may not get an A+, unless it is outstanding, but you will get a much better mark if you know what you are saying, say it with confidence and structure it clearly.
Judith Field teaches public speaking in schools to teachers and students as well as to business people and individuals. An oral exam judges far more than just the words that come out of your mouth.