Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free TOS apps to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

There she was, a mere slip of an English woman, barely 5 feet tall, standing in the middle of a foreign Chinese prison, surrounded by chaos. The prisoners in the middle of a riot, guards dead or wounded, blood everywhere, and Gladys Aylward was being asked to stop it. How could a white foreigner, and a woman no less, hope to stop a mob of violent men when their own Chinese soldiers refused to do it?

“Why me?” she’d wanted to know. “Because you tell us many times you serve a God of love,” said the mandarin of Yangcheng, governor of the remote mountain village where she was a missionary. “Will not your God protect you?” 

Suddenly, across the yard, a little man broke free of an angry group of prisoners. He ran straight for Gladys and hid behind her while being chased by a half-crazed man who was swinging an axe. In that moment all Gladys could do was pray a quick, desperate prayer to her friend, Jesus: “Please Lord, protect me and give me the words to say.” And in a big voice, one she’d practiced many times on a wooden soap box back home, she said, “Put that axe down!” And the wild looking man stopped in his tracks and with a confused look on his face, handed her the bloodied handle. 

Before she went to China, Gladys knew that she would have to overcome her fear of speaking in public. She was just an ordinary parlormaid with very little education. If she was to become a missionary she had to learn to be a good communicator. 

In the year and a half that it took her to save up for her travel fare to China, she often went to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where anyone with something to say could have a go. Gladys would bring along a wooden soap box, stand on it, and practice using a big voice while telling passers-by about God’s love. Many times she was ridiculed or completely ignored, but she didn’t let it stop her.    

How could Gladys have known how important those times she had practiced speaking back in Hyde Park would be? Over and over, the time spent at Speaker’s Corner had proved invaluable to Gladys while she was in a foreign country that was 5,000 miles from home. Now she found herself standing before an angry but silent mob, the complete center of attention. Not one of the dangerous and desperate-looking men could have discerned by the sound of her voice how frightened she really was. The Lord had prepared her to face this challenge.

“What is going on here? Why are you all behaving so badly?” Gladys’s voice could be heard clear across the yard.

Then the men began to tell her about their frustration with poor living conditions, little food to eat, and nothing to do all day long. Gladys promised to see what she could do for them if they would stop their fighting and take care of the wounded and the dead. Miraculously, the men agreed and the riot was stopped.

While Gladys definitely experienced God’s intervention in that situation, she also had equipped herself to face this crisis. Many of us may never find ourselves in a situation like hers. However all of us, at one time or another, will find ourselves having to speak before some kind of group. Here are a few tips and exercises that can help us become better communicators . . . without the help of a soap box. 

Tip #1: Clear Speech

Many people mumble or speak so quickly that they run their words together when they talk. Speaking clearly is a key to good communication. To learn to avoid having a lazy mouth, put a pencil horizontally between your teeth. Say four times: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” In order to be understood you’ll find yourself stretching your mouth much more than usual. Take the pencil out and repeat the sentence. 

Then say the following tongue twister three times quickly: “Unique New York.” Undoubtedly this proved difficult. Now slow your speech down, enunciating the words clearly as you repeat that phrase three more times. Often we try to speak as quickly as we think. Not a good idea.

Tip #2: Voice Projection

Another problem people have concerns the volume of their voices. In Gladys’s case it was critical for her not to have a soft, mousy voice but rather a strong one that could be heard over a crowd. This isn’t about screaming but about increasing the volume by using your diaphragm. Tighten your abdomen, put your hand on your diaphragm, and force the air out of your lungs with a loud “Ha!” The sound of your voice should come from your diaphragm not your throat. 

Pick a spot across the room, the yard, or even the parking lot. Use good diction and repeat this phrase: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” Your voice will adjust its volume to project to the spot where you have focused your attention. Do this numerous times, and remember to speak clearly.

Tip #3: Using Expression

Nobody wants to hear someone speak in a dull, expressionless voice. You certainly don’t, so learn to use a little drama in your voice. Your audience, whoever they may be, will thank you. Try saying the phrase that you are now very familiar with, but with the following emotions: anger, sadness, excitement, boredom, and fear. This will get you out of the habit of using a monotone, uninteresting voice.

Tip #4: Eye Contact

Everyone uses their eyes to communicate. If you’re angry, your eyes can bore a hole into a person. If you’re sad, they can tear up. If you’re shy, they can avoid contact. If you’re lying, they can shift, nervously. If you’re happy, your eyes can appear to dance. A lot of people don’t know what to do with their eyes when they speak. If you’re addressing a group, it is important to make eye contact with them. However, many people tend to spend more time looking at the ceiling or the floor instead of connecting with their audience. 

Practice by looking someone in the eyes and reciting the ABCs. Don’t look away. Though it sounds and feels foolish, practicing this way will help you gain confidence. No friend around? Use the mirror. 

Tip #5: The Body Speaks

It’s true. Though you may not say a word, your body is communicating to others. A person who tends to slouch is perceived as lacking confidence. Someone who is always fidgeting is thought of as nervous. How about the person who has his arms crossed while you talk? Do you think he is very open to what you have to say? What do you think of a person who uses the same hand gestures over and over when he speaks? What impression do you have of a person whose hands are always in his pockets? 

Being a good communicator is about having a body that conveys openness and confidence. Try standing tall in front of a mirror, with your arms loosely at your sides, gesturing occasionally, while you recite anything from a familiar nursery rhyme to your favorite Scripture verse. Observe your body language and eliminate distracting mannerisms.  

Tip #6: Memorization

Many people think they can’t memorize and that it’s a gift given to only a chosen few. You might be surprised when you realize how many things you have committed to memory, such as your address, phone number, Social Security number, the words to songs, or a silly rhyme from your youth. 

How did any of us learn the ABCs or the multiplication tables? Repetition. Going over and over something establishes it in your brain. So try writing out your testimony; a favorite psalm, poem, or joke; or even a monologue. Then read it over, dividing it into smaller sections, and work on each one until you know them as well as you know the ABCs. 

Combine this memorized piece with my simple tips and practice them in the privacy of your own room, in your backyard, church sanctuary, or even a local park. You’ll find your own natural awkwardness turning into confidence, and you never know when it’ll come in handy. One day you might find yourself in a situation where you’re glad you were prepared.

Deanna Storfie homeschooled her four daughters for nine years and has her own drama company called Acting Up! Drama in Alberta, Canada. She holds drama workshops, writes, and performs monologues of Christian heroes such as Gladys Aylward. For more information, check out her website: www.actingupdrama.ca

Publication date: September 10, 2012