What we’ve learnt from going online

We’re all locked up to some degree at the moment.

Even though the official ‘lockdown’ in Sydney is starting to ease, there are so many events, shows and public speaking opportunities that were scheduled for our young community of speakers, which they will simply miss.

Events such as the Inner West Eisteddfod and other public speaking, drama, theatre, school plays and assemblies that never eventuated, are truly a missed opportunity for our children to practice their public speaking skills.

But where a door closes, a window opens.

As we transitioned to online classes, we realised that speaking to an online audience is a skill that our students (like many adults) had no familiarity with before the pandemic.

In one of the first Zoom trials we ran, teacher Trish noticed the senior students were talking funny, suddenly using a high-pitched voices, or mumbling, or inserting filler words such as ‘like’, ‘so yeah’ and ‘you know’ into every sentence. Where did these speaking habits come from?

Trish realised the students were morphing into YouTube personas – they associated speaking in front of the computer as a YouTube or TikTok-style delivery.

With that, we recognised that our students needed to develop the ability to speak to an online audience and learn how to conduct themselves in an online setting. We had to emphasise to students:

  1. It’s the same as any other class environment – present as you would for class (i.e. no PJs!), minimise distractions (i.e. no phones!), and be an active audience member for your peers (i.e. no open tabs!).
  2. Speak clearly – always important, but particularly crucial in a digital setting. Speaking slowly and clearly improves the chances of clear audio for others.
  3. Experiment with facial expression – as we only see the top part of your body, facial expressions can do the work that body language might normally be doing in a physical space.
  4. Use your voice as you would in any other presentation setting – be mindful of pace, pause, vocal dynamics, using expression and speaking in an engaging way.

To make the most of building this new skillset, we created the Viva Voice Online Eisteddfod.

This allows our young community of speakers and performers to experience performing online in front of an audience – including an extensive team of guest adjudicators.

The students are experimenting with every aspect of speaking to a virtual audience, exploring things like:

  • What background am I comfortable with the audience seeing?
  • What height do I want the camera?
  • What does ‘eye contact’ mean on Zoom?
  • What’s the difference between performing to faces in ‘Gallery Mode’ compared to choosing one person to perform to in ‘Speaker Mode’
  • What’s it like to perform or speak to people on a screen as opposed to people in a hall or theatre?

The online eisteddfod gives the students a goal to work towards and an event to look forward to. It’s also a great opportunity to bring our community together and stay connected, virtually.

We’re already hearing stories of how valuable this online experience has been for students.

Three students have attended interviews for high schools and scholarships via Zoom. One parent said their child was more comfortable on Zoom than they were, because their child had become so familiar with Zoom from Viva Voice classes! They knew how to check their video and audio connection, how to handle the lag time, and what camera angle was most appropriate.

Another parent told us that our online classes have ‘been a lifeline’ for her daughter during the period of learning from home. For a young person who is so creative and so social, she has loved staying connected with classmates via virtual classes and enjoyed the creativity and innovation that’s come with it.

We’ve also noticed that students with learning challenges were some of the fastest to adapt to learning online. They have excelled in an environment with less distraction and being able to focus purely on the screen.

Our students have learnt a lot from their online experience and have pulled together their top tips:

  1. Put on a headset

This has helped lots of students, especially those in busy households. Wearing a headset helps remove background noise and they can trust the mic is right in front of their mouth to catch everything they say. Plus they can hear the other students more clearly, and use gesture as they wish!

  1. Use the ‘mute’ function

Creativity abounds in the households of Viva Voice students! Many students have siblings taking virtual music or dance lessons at the same time as their speech and drama class, so they’ve LOVED being able to mute their mics to make sure other class members don’t hear the hustle and bustle of the family in the background. They have embraced the mute function and encourage each other to use it when necessary.

  1. Talk to the audience, not the computer

The students have experimented with Gallery Mode and Speaker Mode on Zoom, and regardless of which one they’re using, they say the most important thing is to remember there’s an audience.

They say don’t just speak to your screen – it limits the connection you feel with the audience or with your classmates. Speak to one person or speak to all of them, and look at them whenever possible.

Even though eye contact can’t really happen online, an audience can still tell when you’re reading your notes or looking at something else entirely!

  1. Breathe!

As strange as the last couple of months have been, there’s been an element of excitement for the students as they’ve ventured into the unknown. Sometimes being online got so exciting that they’d race through their pieces at lightning speed!

The best way to manage nerves and control your pace is to remember to breathe. The students recognise that a few deep breaths before launching into their performance or presentation are key to a great delivery.

Before your next online meeting (for you and your child):

Place your hand around the level of your belly button and focus on your breath as it moves your belly out into your hand as breath comes in, and your hand moves in towards your spine as breath leaves. This will help centre your breath and keep you relaxed when presenting online!

We’re looking forward to seeing you at the online eisteddfod later this month!