Unlike pupils today, who must all give a speech as part of their GCSE in English Language, I am often asked by friends who have somehow managed to avoid ever having given a speech in their lives, if I will help them to write one. In fact, I have just paused penning a friend’s wedding speech to focus on this! The very thought of speaking to an audience fills them with dread but they want to be the person communicating with an audience as they know that it is more than words that they want to express. Indeed, ‘More than Words’ is the name of my friend, Adrian Kirk’s, excellent public speaking training company. The title encapsulates the significance of public speaking: to put across a sentiment, an idea, a belief or a story, with persuasion and oratory skill, is a tremendous achievement. It is also not too far-fetched to say that effective public speeches have shaped history and have been as powerful as the sword for good or bad.
As an English teacher and as the Chairman of the district’s English Speaking Union, in addition to coaching Rotary Youth Speaks and the Catenian Public Speaking, I have judged, assessed, compered and organised public speaking competitions for decades. Many of the teams I have coached in all schools in which I have worked, have reached national finals, beating hundreds of contestants. I have, therefore, listened to well over a thousand speeches of five or six minutes each (and that figure does not include all the rehearsals when I will have heard the same speech several times). I make the observation that once a person realises that talking to an audience should be as if talking in the ear to just one other in order to persuade them about something, then they have mastered the skill. Yes, there are ‘tricks of the trade’ with rhetorical devices; the order of three; the use of contrast or rhetorical questions, to name a few. However, what really wins a crowd over is a sense of a speaker’s integrity; they must sound natural, passionate and with researched, structured content in their speech. They must also learn how to stand, to vary pace and pitch whilst enunciating clearly, looking at everyone present.
I came to learn public speaking through drama and, quickly, had to learn not to be too dramatic! The road to public speaking includes people from all manner of backgrounds with the same qualities I recall the BBC’s aims: to entertain, to inform and to educate. The greatest gift of all is humour, although it can sometimes seem inappropriate. Then, as always, a strong, rhetorical and memorable phrase will suffice: ‘I have a Dream’ (Martin Luther King); ‘We shall Fight on the Beaches’ (Winston Churchill); ‘I am the First Accused’ (Nelson Mandella); and ‘Freedom or Death’ (Emmeline Pankhurst): all brilliant examples of speeches that have shaped history. More than words, public speaking is enabling: a key to confidence, a tool for finding one’s voice and, when used for good, to bring about effective, beneficial social change. Now, back to my friend’s wedding speech…
Mrs Lori Winch-Johnson, Teacher of English and Head of Learning Support