Merit Badge Clinic: Do Your Scouts Talk the Talk?

Here’s how you can teach them to face down their fears of public speaking.

Michael Caporlingua understands why the requirements for the Communications merit badge intimidate some Scouts. On his first day in high school, teachers sent him to speech therapy because he stuttered and could barely eke out his R’s and L’s.

Having overcome the challenges—he later became a radio announcer—Caporlingua remains passionate about the merit badge. “Diminishing fear and inspiring confidence,” he says. “That’s what it can do for a Scout.”

Many people fear public speaking. But for younger boys already lacking self-confidence, that fear is magnified, and a little empathy goes a long way.

“Put yourself in the Scout’s shoes,” advises Caporlingua, a merit badge counselor and president of the Hudson Valley Council in New York. “You’re 14, your voice cracks, and you wear braces. Perhaps the longest you’ve spoken in public was placing an order at Wendy’s.”

To help build confidence, Caporlingua starts by engaging the Scout in an informal, one-on-one conversation. “I say, ‘Tell me what you like, what interests you.’” Most Scouts love to talk about some topic, even if it’s just video games or animated movies. “After we’ve talked awhile, I say, ‘Do you realize you just did a speech about claymation?’ or whatever topic engaged him. That helps us find his comfort zone.”

Scouter Troy Pugh of Ephrata, Wash., tries to impress upon Scouts the importance of communications skills in the real world.

“I’m a financial adviser, and the most important skill for me is to understand clearly what my clients’ needs and objectives are, and to read between the lines about their fears and concerns, too,” he says. “I try to equate the requirements of the badge with understanding the concepts and why they’re so important.”

As a badge requirement, the Scout must attend a public gathering such as a city council or school board meeting. Scouter Earnie Glazener of Lake Stevens, Wash., helps find meetings with a topic that will engage the Scout. He cites a recent city council debate about a ban on the sale of fireworks in the community.

“The Scout was so opinionated that he wanted to speak up at the meeting,” Glazener says. “I had to remind him, ‘No, I want to hear you summarize both sides.’ He did, including the one he didn’t agree with, and that was a learning experience.”

Look beyond the merit badge requirements themselves to teach Scouts as you go, Pugh advises. “If you can embed communications skills into the entire process, it will be a more fruitful experience.”

When approached by aspiring Scouts, merit badge counselor Steve Lavine of Plano, Tex., hands the boy a business card and tells him to call his office to schedule a meeting. Just picking up the phone can present a challenge—and a learning opportunity. “I don’t follow up,” Lavine says. “The Scout has to call me. This is part of how he learns to get things done, to become a man and a functioning adult.”

The skills honed for the Communications merit badge also will empower a Scout in his Scouting career, especially with an Eagle project. And when Scouts carry out requirements such as leading a court of honor, it’s a positive for the troop.

“It’s interesting to watch younger boys come out of their shell and grab the task of emcee and do something with it,” Glazener says. “You see them grow, and that sets the bar higher for the other boys in the troop.”

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