Winston Churchill’s Blood,Toil, Tears, and Sweat, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream are speech exemplars that we teach. They are great speeches in part because the speakers had very real goals to achieve, they were collaboratively drafted, and they were prepared with the intent of both addressing those who were in attendance and the wider audience available through media like radio, television, and film. Today, speech contests are intended to provide opportunities for young people to practice and improve their public speaking skills in preparation for their future roles as leaders. To better prepare students, we should consider expanding speech contests to include categories that better match the conditions of the adult world and the power of the internet.
We should begin by emphasizing the collaborative nature of public speaking, rather than the competitive, and add more realistic speaking categories.
Racing is supposed to improve the breed. That is a form-follows-function approach to design. With speech, the emphasis has been on competition based on a relatively narrow range of public speaking skills. What has happened is that the function has been to win in a category and all preparation, or design, has been focused on this goal. In public speaking, emphasizing collaboration, rather than competition, would make public speaking both more valuable and more reflective of real-world experiences. A good example of this type of speaking is offered through Model United Nations (MUN). Student-delegates arrive at a conference prepared to represent a country on several important issues. Collaboratively, a working group of delegates forms, with delegates contributing clauses for a resolution, creating compromises between delegates’ positions, modifying wording, lobbying other delegates for support, drafting a speech and delivering the speech to the committee. Each speech represents a group effort, which is one element of public speaking that is more realistic. A second element is that success is not based on how many points were awarded on a rubric. Success, and growth, is based on the ability to work well with others and to persuade an informed audience that a proposal is a solution to a serious problem. This is the type of public speaking for which we should prepare our students.
The speaking categories should also shift to more authentic types of speeches and presentations. TED Talks and TEDx at Tokyo International School are authentic experiences. Another example is Yokohama International School’s Pecha Kucha. In each of these examples, individuals speak on topics of real interest with a range of presentation tools available. People are not restricted to carefully rehearsed recitations, making the experience more valuable to everyone who attends.
The focus of a speech contest should be on bringing ideas to the community for discussion, debate, and reaching consensus. With the current format there is an over focus on the win and less on the ideas. Then, when the speeches are finished, the conversation is over. We congratulate students on delivery and confidence, but we do not begin to debate the merits of the persuasive or expository case that has been made or the extemporaneous issue discussed. These speeches are end products. There should be further steps toward greater understanding and, when possible, consensus.
We need opportunities to use public speaking as a tool for delivering good proposals and helping to solve problems by bringing them to the community. Gamers recently solved an HIV/AIDS research problem in three weeks that researchers had worked on for over ten years. The breakthrough came by taking it to the world community for an answer. This is in the nature, as well, of open-source software. That when you make tools available for many people, there will be better, more ingenious developments happening sooner. The X Prize, and similar challenges, were always about challenging everyone to find a solution to a problem. While these examples may appear to only stimulate competition, no one could do it alone. Formal and informal teams must be assembled in order to be successful. Researchers and academics frequently attend conferences in order to present papers and hear about the work of others. Speaking is a means of sharing ideas.
It might be valuable to move from awarding medals and toward criteria-based judging for feedback. More comments, from teachers and peers, could be more valuable and help students improve.
With the spread of WiFi and internet access, the nature of audience-speaker relations has changed. Students should be coached to make the most of this advancement. In larger venues, create a moderated back channel. Teach students in the audience how to use it responsibly and speakers how to anticipate the benefits and drawbacks. Consider how Sarah Lacey was unprepared for her audience’s feedback during her Mark Zuckerberg interview. The issue is not the technology, but respectful audience-speaker interaction. This would help all students learn to work well with this new feature of public speaking.
Speeches should also be available through live streaming. Just as students in class now write for a real-world audience using Facebook, blogs, and Vimeo, students can now speak to a world audience. Further, speeches should be archived for future presenters to learn from and past speakers to refer to as part of their digital portfolios.
Speech contests should provide opportunities for students to develop authentic skills. To better prepare students, we should consider expanding speech contests to include categories that better match the conditions of the professional world and the expectations of those accustomed to the internet.
Garry Leroy Baker