Heads are the public voice of their school, the Communicators in Chief. They should study, practice and prepare for that role in the same way that they study curricular design and financial management. Here are some tips to get started.
Most heads of school look admiringly at those of their colleagues who are inspirational speakers, whether addressing a handful of people or a large audience. They talk without notes. When in front of a large group, they seem to be speaking to each person in the room. Is their skill an unevenly distributed gift? Effective public speaking is critical to the work of a head of school and it can be a real game changer.
Heads of school are called upon to speak frequently, and those speeches can be pivotal to success in admissions, retention, faculty retention and donor cultivation. While most school heads do not suffer from stage fright, not all understand certain fundamentals about speaking that can make a dramatic difference in their performance. Knowing about speech structure, tone, body language, audience and effective use of stories can make the difference that would compel a prospective parent to enroll.
Every time heads speaks publicly, they are branding their schools and themselves. In making the move from good to great, an executive speech coach is a valuable resource. These coaches work directly with clients either face to face or electronically. Another effective venue for learning and practicing speechmaking is International Toastmasters, an organization devoted to effective speaking.
Following are some of the important lessons that heads of schools (and board presidents) can use to improve their public speaking and benefit their schools:
Lesson 1: Make public speaking improvement a stated goal, and set target goals. Think about the different large public speeches that you give each year and decide that at the first one (opening day of school) you will work on speech structure, on the second one (back to school night) you will make sure that structure is clear and you will aim to work on your opening “grabber,” and on the next one (prospective parent open house) you will work on awkward pauses, “ums” and “uhs.” Understand that this is a learning process that unfolds. Standards and benchmarks and evaluation will lead to success.
Lesson 2: Find someone or a group of people who can evaluate your progress and who will see that you move along a skill continuum. One possibility is to find a speech coach whose job is to assess your skills and help you improve. The other possibility, not mutually exclusive, is to join a local toastmaster’s club in your area. This organization has been around for many years and there are clubs in virtually every city. Most clubs meet weekly and there is a set program for speech development that each member follows. Meetings are structured to give every member opportunities to speak, to self-evaluate and to be evaluated. They are an excellent venue for low-stakes learning and practicing speaking.
Lesson 3: Learn the simple structure of most speeches—a grabber (that draws the audience into the speech), three takeaway points, memorable close. Often we have more than three major points to make, but we must face that our listeners can only remember three major takeaways. We have to make them count.
Lesson 4: Make your speeches accessible to everyone; use videotaping and webcasting to record, post and share your speeches. Post them on your school’s website, Facebook page and parent portal. Realize that people are busy and may not be able to hear you when you deliver the speech, but they are still interested. And they can replay it if needed.
Lesson 5: Find exemplars of excellence and listen to their speeches. It could be a local leader or a nationally televised one. Make a point to recognize their grabber, three points and close.
Lesson 6: Finally, most people have to hear a message multiple times to absorb and own it. We know this as educators—but as speakers, we seem to expect that once is enough. Heads of school need to pick their three messages for the year, and those messages need to be repeated and reinforced in every speech throughout the year. The advertising industry used to estimate that a consumer needed three exposures to a product to remember it. In this era of information overload, the new estimate is 11 exposures to the same message to remember it. Repeat your major theme in each of your major speeches, share the video of these speeches, blog about your three main points—repeatedly, and get feedback from your listeners over time to determine if they can remember your point.
Public speaking is a key skill for heads of schools and something we all can continuously develop as professionals.♦
Dr. Barbara Gereboff is head of school and Joelle Kaufman is president of the Board of Trustees at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, California. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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