Teen Breathe

How to develop your oracy skills

Have you ever had a great idea that felt fully formed in your head, but when you tried to put it into words, it came out all wrong? Or perhaps you’ve been told by a teacher or family member that you need to ‘express yourself with confidence’ or ‘speak up more’ and haven’t had a clue where to start. If so, you’re not alone. Speaking and listening are crucial life skills and there are lots of ways to find your voice and express yourself clearly. Try the following exercises, outlined by Voice21 and Oracy Cambridge, to hone your skills in each of the four main areas that support the art of speaking.
WORDS: Helen Hillman
ILLUSTRATION: Natasa Milosevic

How oracy skills need to be developed and practised

Alice Stott is director of programmes for Voice 21, the UK’s national charity for championing these skills. She says: ‘The art of speaking and listening, otherwise known as oracy, is made up of a set of skills which need to be explicitly taught and regularly practised.’

Thankfully, this fact is being recognised, with the British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer recently announcing that if his party wins the next general election, he’ll make oracy a top priority in schools.

So, why is it so important to learn these skills? Well, research shows that the art of speaking is important for all aspects of life – your relationships and mental health as well as your education and career choices.

How to use your physicality to improve your oracy skills

This is how you use your voice and your body as an instrument to help you to communicate. Think of someone you know who’s a confident speaker – this could be a teacher or someone in the public eye, like an actor or news reporter. The next time you see this person speaking, ask yourself the following questions:

What is the volume of their voice like?

How fast or slow are they speaking?

Which words do they choose to emphasise?

How clear is their pronunciation? 

Do they pause for effect?

Where are they looking?

Do they gesture with their hands as they speak?

Do they use facial expressions to emphasise points?

Once you’ve observed how these skills aid spoken communication, pick one or two that you’d like to work on yourself.

How to develop your linguistic abilities to enhance your oracy

This is how the words and sentence structures you choose ensure that you deliver your message clearly and appropriately. Pay attention to the different ways people speak in different settings and the language-based tools they use to make their points effectively. Ask yourself the following questions:

Do they use keywords or technical terminology in a way that makes them sound more authoritative and knowledgeable?

Do they use rhetorical techniques, like metaphor or repetition, to ensure their point sticks in your mind more clearly?

Do they use humour to put their audience at ease and keep them engaged?

When you come across examples of the above, try to remember them or, better still, note them down. Over time, you’ll develop a list of keywords and phrases to return to regularly for inspiration.

How to build on your cognitive skills to develop your oracy

This is how you develop your own and others’ ideas and understanding through spoken communication. When you find yourself in conversation, consider using the following sentence starters to help you confidently contribute to the discussion:

If you agree with what someone else is saying: ‘To build on what you said there, I think…’

If you disagree with them: ‘I’d actually like to challenge you on that, because…’

If you aren’t sure what they mean: ‘Can I just clarify what you meant by…?’

If you want to find out more about their idea: ‘Would you mind giving a bit more detail about what you just said?’

Why your social and emotional skills are essential to good oracy

This is your ability to interact appropriately and respectfully with others, being aware of their needs and valuing each voice equally. Reflect on how you engage with others in conversation and answer the following questions:

Do you often come away realising you haven’t contributed much to a discussion?

Do you notice yourself talking over others to make your point?

What signals are you giving to others to show that you’re listening?

Once you’ve given some attention to the way you interact in conversations, try the following tips to improve the flow:

Give yourself a target of one or two contributions per discussion (you could use the sentence starters in the previous section as prompts).

Wait for natural pauses in others’ speech if you want to make a point, and strive to invite other people into the conversation by simply asking them: ‘What do you think?’

Signal that you’re listening by facing the speaker and nodding along.

Build on their ideas or ask follow-up questions.

The four pillars have been outlined by Voice21 and Oracy Cambridge, a communication consultancy at the University of Cambridge. For more information visit voice21.org or oracycambridge.org

Read more about important life skills in Teen Breathe issue 45.