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Speaking in Public

As you work to support comprehensive sexuality education programs, you will most likely have to speak in front of a group, whether it is the school board or an advocacy group you have organized. The following suggestions will help you make an effective presentation.

Develop a Few Key Messages
Determine the most important messages you want to communicate. The biggest mistake many people make is thinking that they have to say everything. Keep your messages short and limit your remarks to approximately three or four key points—this will help ensure that you consistently communicate your strongest, most effective messages.

Remind your audience that this is about what benefits ALL young people. Opponents may likely counter that you are representing only a small portion of young people or a special interest. Be ready to emphasize from the start that:

  • ALL young people deserve good health and support to remain in school and graduate.
  • ALL young people deserve medically accurate sexuality education.
  • ALL young people deserve education regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, family situation, or past or current sexual experience. Therefore sexuality education must be inclusive of ALL youth.
  • ALL parents deserve assurance that schools in their community are committed to providing factual, high quality health education that includes sexuality education.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Take every opportunity to restate your key messages. If you are engaged in a public debate, use each question as an opportunity to communicate your key messages. Remember that you do not need to directly answer a question posed to you. If you do, try to end your answer with one of your key points. Always restate one of your key messages when asked if you have anything else to add.

See Pulling It All Together  for more information.

Define Your Role
Determine what your position is at each meeting. Are you there as a public health expert to discuss studies and data? Are you there as an education expert to discuss student retention and academic achievement? If so, rely on professional resources and research, and use personal references and emotional pleas sparingly. (But don’t avoid them altogether, especially in a community meeting.)

Or are you speaking as a parent, teacher, or school nurse? If so, emphasize your concern for young people and use personal stories and community statistics to make your points. Use technical jargon sparingly.

Get To Know Your Audience
Depending on your audience, your presentation content and style may vary widely. If you are addressing a group of parents your messages will be different than if you are addressing the press. Determine the most persuasive messages for each audience. For example, you might choose to emphasize the financial costs of instituting an ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage program when talking to a school board or superintendent.

When talking to the media it is best to emphasize scientific facts. For example, you might explain that evidence suggests comprehensive sexuality education programs work while there is no evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs work.

Remember to consider the messages you want to relay as well as those you want to avoid for each group you address.

Practice Makes Perfect
Practice stating your key messages until they become second nature. If you are making a presentation, rehearse several times in front of family, friends, or a mirror, until you feel comfortable. Also, be sure to time yourself and keep within the time limit. If you go over your time, it is likely that you will be asked to stop and may miss the opportunity to make some important points. Don’t get frustrated if your first few practice runs are less than perfect. Keep trying and you will improve.

Look at social media for examples of short messages with high impact. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media often display messages about sexuality education (from supporters as well as opponents) that are short-and-to-the-point. Try using some of these as talking points by practicing how you would say them in real-time to another person or to a group.

Anticipate Questions
Inviting questions after a presentation gives you an opportunity to clarify your remarks and reiterate your key points. Answering unexpected questions, however, can be challenging and it is easy to be thrown off. It helps if you view each question as an opportunity to state your case, remember to keep your answers short, and stick to your messages. It is also helpful to prepare responses to likely arguments or questions so that you can avoid getting caught off-guard. If you are ‘stumped’ by a question you can’t answer, state firmly that you will find the answer and make sure to report the answer back to the group.

Make It Personal
While statistics and research are powerful tools, local examples or personal stories will ensure that your messages get across to people. For example, in one community, advocates for comprehensive sexuality education illustrated a statistic by stating that each year more young women in their community give birth than graduate from high school. This compelling fact was easy for people to understand and remember. Sharing stories and examples from family, friends, and community members will also illustrate your message on a more personal level (though you will likely want to keep the story anonymous or use pseudonyms to protect their privacy).

Be Confident
Speak with conviction! If your opponent claims that comprehensive sexuality education encourages young people to become sexually active, don’t say “I think there are studies that show the opposite.” Say, “Scientific studies clearly show that sexuality education does not hasten the onset of intercourse. In fact, it has been found to delay sexual activity among teens.”

“I think” and “I feel” statements will come across weaker than definitive statements when you are speaking as an expert. If you are speaking as a parent or concerned adult who is sharing personal stories, “I think” and “I feel” statements are more appropriate.

Speak clearly, slowly, and loudly. The more practice you have communicating your points, the less likely you are to insert “um’s” and “uh’s” into your dialogue.

Use body language that communicates confidence and conviction. Stand up straight and use emphatic gestures. Avoid reading directly from your paper—this often leads to a monotone presentation that does not connect with the audience. It is not necessary to memorize your remarks. Instead, be familiar enough with them that you can glance at your paper periodically and use it as a guide. When you are not looking at your paper, you should maintain eye contact with audience members to keep their attention focused on you. (If eye contact is uncomfortable for you, try looking at the tops of people’s heads. This gives the impression that you are looking straight at the audience.)

Stay Focused on Your Key Messages
When speaking, do your best to stick to your main points. Avoid going off on tangents or letting your opponents steer the conversation to unrelated or less important issues. You can maintain (or regain) control of a discussion or debate by returning to your key messages.

Focus on the issues rather than on the personalities or affiliations of the people involved in the discussion. Acknowledge that everyone involved wants what is best for the young people in the community.

Keep Calm, Cool, and Collected
Make conscious decisions about how to present yourself. This includes what you wear, how you assert yourself, who you sit beside at the meeting, and how you act during other people’s presentations. You want your audience to like your message, but it helps if they like you as well.

Always maintain a professional demeanor. Sexuality education can be a highly charged issue and many people have passionate feelings about it. A rational presentation with strong messages, backed-up with the facts, is the most effective.

Something to Keep in Mind
Trying to convert opponents of comprehensive sexuality education is time-consuming, frustrating, and most often ineffective. Focus on reaching the parents and community members who are supportive of the issue but inactive, those who are unaware, or those who are “on the fence.”

Get a Little Help from Your Friends
Ask family, friends, co-workers, and supporters to attend meetings or call in to radio or television shows where you are speaking. A friendly face or voice can make all the difference. Prompt them to ask questions that will allow you to get your main messages across.

If you are testifying at a meeting, coordinate with any colleagues who are also speaking so that you can support, rather than simply reiterating or worse contradicting, each other in your testimony.