Public speaking is among the average American's top fears, ranking above the fear of illness and, for some, even death.
But before graduation, all Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students are required to face that fear as they deliver a presentation - part of their senior exit project - before a panel of randomly selected teachers.
Preparation for the senior exit project is what drew students on a Saturday afternoon to the Toastmasters Youth Leadership program at Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Sponsored by the area's historic Goldmine Toastmasters Club, based in Cabarrus County, the five-week series launched March 3 at noon as students, parents and volunteers gathered in the church's fellowship hall.
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Michael Charity, the volunteer coordinator, is leading participants through the fundamentals of public speaking, offering ample opportunity for discussion and practice each week.
Charity understands the fears associated with public speaking. To encourage students, he often says, "If I had to give a senior exit project when I was in school - if they told me I had to get up in front of adults - I probably would have dropped out of school."
Hoping to ease the initial tension, Charity decided to put his own spin on the first meeting. He invited Paul Marks, founder of Over the Counter Improv, to lead participants in a series of games.
For more than an hour, students laughed, acted and danced as Marks and his team taught them the basics of improvisation through games like Zip-Zap-Zup and Jibberish Expert.
"Improv is getting dessert before they get the meal," Charity said. "When they start playing these games, they'll get comfortable and get involved."
Charles Couch, an 11th-grader at Independence High School, excelled throughout the games. "It was pretty fun."
Aaron Badger, a 10th-grader at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, joined the Youth Leadership program after Charity spoke at his school.
"I want to improve my public speaking," Aaron said. "That's something I want to have."
Jay-lah Mack, who also attends Phillip O. Berry, joined the program at her mother's urging.
"I like it. I really do," she said after the first meeting. Jay-lah, who says she isn't shy, hopes the program will give her the skills and confidence to finish her senior exit project with excellence. "I want to go in and be able to do it with ease."
Charity, a six-year member of Toastmasters, is confident that the program will help prepare students for success beyond their senior exit projects. He told them, "There will be something in here that you can use that you can take with you the rest of your life."