Delivering a killer speech that makes the audience laugh, Bubbe and Zayde cry, and imports the wisdom of thousands of years of Jewish tradition is a tall order for b’nai mitzvah students. Though the rabbi and cantor can help with the content of the speech, families for years have turned to communication clubs to help young people learn the art of public speaking.
Toastmasters International Hopeful Communicators, a local club that meets the second and fourth Thursdays of every month at Tikvat Israel in Rockville, organizes six-session speech delivery boot camps for b’nai mitzvah students.
Right off the bat, the Hopeful Communicators facilitators address shyness and fear, the two biggest stumbling blocks for a newcomer, explained John Melmed, a competition-winning orator and member of Toastmasters for two decades.
“One of the things people are fearful about when they’re giving a speech is that the audience will notice they’re nervous,” said Melmed. “In the majority of cases, the audience does not notice it as much as the speaker notices.”
The adult facilitators reassure the b’nai mitzvah-aged participants that a case of nerves is a normal reaction, but that within “15, 20 or 30 seconds — when they notice that the audience isn’t going to bite their heads off” — it is easier to relax.
It helps to remember that beyond the rabbi, parents and student themselves, no one else in the audience knows the content of the speech; therefore, no one will know if a mistake has been made.
Personalization and humor are key to delivering a quality speech.
“We teach them [that] when giving a d’var Torah, where possible, to bring themselves into it,” said Melmed. That connection to the audience is important for any type of speech, said Melmed, even a scientific lecture.
And humor eases tension in the room for both the speech-giver and the audience. Comedy does not need to come in the form of a joke or old standbys like, “Today, I am a fountain pen.” Sharing of a funny anecdote or giving the audience a big, warm smile should do the trick.
Irritating filler words — “umms” and “likes” — get smoothed out over the course of the hour-and-a-half long sessions because, as Melmed said, “Without filler words you sound like a million dollars.”
Each class is limited to 20 participants who are paired with adult mentors as they work through a manual that highlights the different types of speeches and how to deliver a speech with sincerity and vigor, and how to use hand gestures effectively. In each session, the young participants get up and give a short speech, the idea being that the more students practice and receive critiques the more polished they will become when dazzling relatives with their words of Torah.
The training provided by Hopeful Communicators have helped young participants beyond the bar or bat mitzvah, Melmed said.
“Some of them have gone on to become their class president, to be part of a debating society, gone on to participate in plays and things in college,” he said. The experience of Toastmasters “develops these kids into confident adults.”