Learning to speak in front of an audience, and present your ideas in a way that is clear, concise and compelling is an essential skill. Routinely, when pollsters ask “What is your biggest fear?”, the number one answer is “Speaking in public”. At Noisy Classroom we believe that learning how to speak in front of an audience should be part of every day education in schools across the world. However, part of teaching public speaking involves teaching ‘good’ public speaking. The question I have been asking myself, and others, is “What does good public speaking look like?”.
Generally when answering this questions people look for examples of good public speaking. They look for people who embody those examples. Churchill comes high up on the list. When I was younger, Tony Blair was also there. Jeremy Corbyn might be there too now – or not, depending on your political persuasions. If we were to broaden our focus, perhaps Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama might also be named.
What’s the problem with all of these examples? Firstly, they’re all men. Secondly, all the British examples are white men. Thirdly, they’re all politicians.
Too often our ‘blueprint’ for a good public speaker (especially here in the UK) is a politician, almost always white, almost always male, and inevitably middle class. But, when we think about audiences, they aren’t all male, they aren’t all white, they aren’t all middle class, and very few of them are politicians.
All good public speakers do have certain qualities in common. They have command of rhetoric and use memorable and varied language. They speak loudly, clearly, and slowly enough that the audience can absorb what they are saying. They consider body language and facial expressions. If they’re very good, they adapt their speaking style to their content and their audience. But they don’t all wear suits. They don’t all have cut glass accents. They don’t all have deep baritone voices.
I think the best public speakers are ones who have personality. They command an audience because they seem genuinely passionate about what they are speaking about and they are interesting to listen to.
As teachers, we need to make sure that we remember this when helping our students to become better public speakers. Should we really tell the student from Yorkshire to ‘sound more BBC’? Is it fair to give a girl lower ‘style’ marks because she ‘sounded a bit shrill and was too assertive’? Would we do the same if she were a boy? Does a speech have to open by quoting Voltaire or Shakespeare? Couldn’t an equally effective beginning use song lyrics, or spoken word poetry?
Speaking in front of an audience is a skill that all young people need to develop. But they need to develop their own voices, not mimic those of certain politicians, because we are teaching them these communication skills so that we can listen to their voices and their ideas. And it is particularly important that we listen to those who aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t from posh backgrounds.