Our founder AnnMarie Baines delivered this TEDx Talk on March 16, 2023. Check out the talk and transcript below to hear her insightful about expressing yourself confidently and creating meaningful connections with your audience. Listen to the full talk here.
Speak for Yourself
TEDx Talk, March 16, 2023
Have you ever looked around and wanted to be like someone else? The first time I took a public speaking class, I was 9 years old at summer camp and there was this 11-year old girl, Allison, who was so cool. I was the quiet, studious kid who was nice to everyone and helped out the teachers, so yeah, I was super cool, too. As our final, we had to give how-to speeches. I spoke about how to make peanut butter balls by combining cornflakes, peanut butter, corn starch, and raisins and rolling them into balls. Mmm…sounds yummy, right? By the time I finished, I was shaking with nerves, hoping no one could tell how mortified I felt. And then Allison got up there. To this day, I remember her getting a standing ovation while I was covered in peanut butter. And I thought, I want to be like her.
I’m here today to talk about what it takes to develop our voices, how education plays a role, and why it is important to feel safe, brave, and ultimately, free. While the desire to be like other people can be a helpful starting point, we need to learn how to speak for ourselves.
I’ve always been surrounded by powerful voices and fascinated by how people develop them. I’m Filipino-American, which in my family meant that we sang in church and once spent 8 hours singing karaoke, which we recorded and gave out as CDs to all our family members. I spent my childhood singing classical music in a girls chorus. I could sing on a stage, but public speaking was a different story. I spent hours preparing class presentations, trying to get things perfect. I don’t think people could tell, but my memories were always of how sweaty I was and all the things I forgot to say. I wished I could feel comfortable and just be me.
That really didn’t seem possible after my peanut butter ball speech, but a few years later, some high school students visited my middle school class to demonstrate the 17 different types of speech and debate I could do. They made it seem possible, and it helped that my friend begged me to join her at their camp. Debate practice was full of people who I wanted to be like, especially this one student, Aaron, who was a year above me. Aaron was one of the best debaters in the country, I mean, he was incredible. He not only crushed his opponents, but he also coached novices like me, helping us write speeches and analyze topics. In class, he always had the perfect answers to every question. He also asked the kinds of questions that made everyone think differently about an issue. After one practice, I remember writing in my notebook: “Learn how to ask questions!” (underline)
For me, learning public speaking started with watching people like Aaron speak during practices, and then trying a lot of different types of speaking and going to tournaments. I spent the first two years losing debate rounds, but that just made me want it more. I guess you could say I was running away from discomfort, chasing that feeling of being free. Every year, I competed in 10-15 tournaments and nearly 80 rounds of competition across different types of speech and debate. I hit my stride after 2 years and started going undefeated and making it to state and national championships. I couldn’t afford the activity financially and our team didn’t receive funding, so my church raised money for my travel and my coach, Mrs. Berman, paid my fees, saying I could pay her back one day. She passed away before I could.
I have since spent my career as an educator creating that kind of support system for my students. After high school, I kept volunteering for my high school speech and debate team as a coach, so I could be someone else’s Aaron or Mrs. Berman and pay it forward. For my PhD in Educational Psychology, I did research on speech and debate, following the experiences of young people labeled with disabilities, investigating why they felt “smart” in the debate team environment, but felt marginalized in the classroom environment. Every job I’ve held as a professor has involved voice, helping first-year teachers facilitate student voice and teaching public speaking to undergraduates. And then I started my nonprofit, The Practice Space, which elevates underrepresented voices through public speaking education, helping people of all ages speak confidently through storytelling, presentation, and debate.
Learning Sciences, Identity Safety, & Inequity
Oh, man, did I feel seen when I started studying how people learn, otherwise known as the “Learning Sciences”. It was my entire journey of learning how to speak, right there in every article. It turns out that observation and social and cultural context play an important role in learning, just as it did when I saw Aaron debate and was part of such a supportive team. We get better at applying information and skills to new situations, and reflecting on how it’s going, like I did every weekend at tournaments and my students do now. For me, the most eye-opening part was reading the How People Learn Reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which tell us that we have more motivation to persevere when we see a connection between what we are learning right now and who we want to be in the future. In other words, when learning something challenging, we need to see what we are doing as valuable. We also need to believe that we will be able to achieve our goals, also known as self-efficacy.
When we think about what it takes to develop an identity and learn something, it all begins with safety. There’s this wonderful quote from research at Stanford University led by the late Dorothy Steele and her colleagues Becki Cohn-Vargas and team, which states, “In an identity-safe environment, you are not invisible and you do not have to leave part of yourself at the door to feel a sense of belonging. You can be yourself, just the way you are, and thrive in the world.” As I coach at The Practice Space, I start with learning who someone is, what they care about, and what they want for themselves. I think about how to set up the conditions for safety. This means creating space for goal-setting and choice, offering the freedom and space for learners to lead and add their own stamp, and facilitating opportunities to practice and fail with guidance. And in turn, when I am coaching public speaking, I also feel safe to be myself.
Unfortunately, too many people do not get to feel that way and have never felt that way throughout history. Silencing is driven by institutionalized oppression and taught through everyday encounters. For many BIPOC people, the world is a dangerous place full of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotype threat. How can you feel safe to try when everything is so high-stakes and scary? Even our classrooms are unsafe, where students are treated differently and even punished along racial lines, or the content doesn’t reflect who they are, or worse, tells a contradictory narrative. For those who are “lucky” enough not to be directly harmed, there is harm in not being represented. Filipino Americans are the second-largest Asian ethnic group in the United States and yet their stories remain untold and invisible in media and history books. Many Filipinos internalize that oppression, erasing their own cultural identities by promoting skin-lightening products, warning kids not to get too dark in the sun, and holding up whiteness as a model. As someone whose mixed-race appearance didn’t always fit into a mold, it was hard to look around and see where I was reflected in the world. It was hard to see who I wanted to be. When I started speech and debate, it was powerful to see a model and a template for what I wanted to be like, to be able to say, “Yes, that. That’s what I want.”
Templates, Bravery, & Artificial Intelligence
I want to talk more about the role that templates and even artificial intelligence can play, but how that only takes us so far. The word “template” has a lot of definitions, but put simply, it is a model or pattern that guides us to produce or do something. A template can be a mold made out of wood or metal to guide mechanical work. It can be a guide for how to plan and teach a lesson. It can be a pattern for designing a dress. When we are learning something new like public speaking, a template is key, it’s like a coloring book that tells us where to add our special touch. In debate, I had templates for writing speeches, researching a topic, and shifting my tone and volume for maximum impact. There was a template for what to wear, and I proudly wore my blazer and high heels. Years later, when I had to speak at academic conferences and work presentations, it felt super familiar because it was so similar to debate. Mastering the template helped me feel confident because I knew what to do. How many of you have felt more comfortable when you had a template to follow?
Fast forward to 2016, when I decided to pursue a goal that I had since I was 7 years old, ever since I saw the Little Mermaid: I was going to take a voiceover acting class. With all that public speaking experience, I expected it to come easily. It was a shock when I heard my performances played back and they sounded so safe and boring, and as the instructors said, “middle of the road”. The voices that stood out were the ones that were rough around the edges, quirky, imperfect, one-of-a-kind. They made their own choices about how to use their voice to highlight the content and their own uniqueness. They broke the template. That experience was the reminder I needed to break my life’s template and take a different path so that I could connect with my own original voice. The next year, I went all in and started The Practice Space and as hard and scary as it was, I am so glad I did.
I see the same thing now with my students at The Practice Space. Last month, I was practicing with a high school student, a wonderful girl from Africa with a powerful story about her experience coming to the United States, and how people look down on Third World countries. When I asked her about a recent speech tournament, she said, “Well, I learned that I have to change everything.” I asked her why. She said, “I’m doing it wrong.” After some digging, she said, “There was this girl after one of my rounds and she said that I was breaking the rules.” Looking at her revised, “correct”, templated speech made me sad. All her personal stories were gone, replaced by facts and language that reminded me of all the other speeches I’d seen in competition. She mastered the template, but as I said to her, “Now, it’s missing you.”
While templates can be helpful, they can also teach people to believe that their life experiences, voices, and identities are somehow unimportant, unworthy, or wrong. They can be inherently inequitable and designed to shut some people down. Why, for instance, did speaking the “right” way mean eliminating personal stories? For me, why was “professional” defined as wearing a blazer and high heels? Internalized oppression can happen when we start to believe that the template is better than our own choices. It is a problem when we hide behind a template, guarding ourselves so people only see beauty and not the so-called “ugly”. In my work at The Practice Space, the most fearless students are the 8-year olds. In our adult work, so many women say they want to “sound more professional and less emotional”, not have an accent or say um. They talk about feeling like an imposter. More and more, I see people get excited about tools like ChatGPT because it puts words and ideas together better than they ever could. Artificial intelligence doesn’t stumble, it doesn’t have doubts, it doesn’t think it is an imposter.
The rise of artificial intelligence tools means we need to reflect on why we want to use them. It’s one thing to use technology to look things up or see useful templates – we should embrace tools to help us learn something new. It’s another thing entirely to use it to sidestep learning, avoid productive challenge, or even worse, when we end up losing our authenticity because we would rather be perfect than real. A restricted society is one that is afraid, one that regurgitates information rather than voicing original thought. We can teach bravery by preparing people to make their own choices. Learning to use your voice shouldn’t be easy. There’s going to be failure and struggle and not everyone is going to agree with you. But we need to learn how to disagree productively if we want an unrestricted, democratic society.
Issues in Education & the Need for Oral Assessment
Unfortunately, in education, we often place greater value on getting the answers “right” and meeting singular definitions of success, which encourages templating, but not bravery. We also live in a world where original thought is ultimately rewarded, but only for an elite few with privilege and power. If we want to center the voices of young people in education, they need access to opportunities that develop their voices and original thinking. I believe public speaking education can be a lever for equity. We saw this with the powerful youth activists in Parkland, Florida. Before the February 2018 mass shooting, young people participated in the only countywide initiative in the United States to require all high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools to offer speech and debate. When the tragic shooting took place, they were ready. They were ready.
As I coach public speakers at The Practice Space, I see a similar willingness to break the mold, but their bravery is not rewarded in school. I see a debater who is full of passion and energetic opinions, who is seen as a disruption in English class. I see a speaker who is an expert in military history, who is seen as disabled in school. I see too many girls who, like myself, are ferocious at tournaments, but appear introverted in class. My bravest students use their voices to express joy, confusion, and frustration. They say how hurt they feel when people speak negatively about their race and gender. They express how hardship has made them who they are. They are goofy, weird, and incredibly alive. But not in the classroom.
In too many school systems, students are only assessed on their ability to regurgitate information or express knowledge learned from classes and texts. It comes as no surprise that these same assessments are vulnerable to artificial intelligence. There’s a template to the college personal statement or the 5-paragraph essay. If we are just assessing the use of the template, then why not have a robot do it for you? But if what we want to assess is originality and authenticity, then we need to speak. We need more oral assessments, presentations, and debate to engage in what we really think and feel. But we also need guidance that facilitates diverse forms of expression and promotes the inclusion, care, and affirmation of diverse voices. In our book, Amplify Student Voices, my colleagues and I call this “Expression-Driven Teaching”, where the goal is to help people feel brave and free to be themselves, on purpose. Public speaking is a vital skill to engage in dialogue, explain and defend our thinking, and struggle productively to learn. This is especially true for people of color and for people whose identities have been marginalized. But when we have inequitable access to expression, increased restrictions on what can be taught, and teachers who are overloaded with restrictions on their choices and time, none of us have the conditions to feel safe.
What Does This Mean
So, where should we focus our attention as we learn to develop our own free, original voices?
1) Identity. 2) Commitment. 3) Connection.
Number 1: Identity. Being a good public speaker starts with putting yourself out there and being true to what you are about. It takes time to even figure out what that is and how you relate or don’t relate to existing templates, like whether you choose to wear high heels. At any age, it helps to have a coach or teacher who sees you for who you are, even when you don’t know, and helps you experiment with what you can show the world.
Number 2: Commitment. When figuring out what to say, ask yourself, what’s my one idea that matters most? Too many people focus way too much on trying not to say um, or what to do with their hands. If you figure out what you really want to say, you will be more certain and the filler words will slip away. Public speaking should start with your content.
Number 3: Connection. Communication is all about connection and as speakers, we need to make decisions that help listeners take in what we are saying. Sometimes, it is about offering examples to illustrate a point or doing research to figure out what your audience already knows. Other times, it is about using pauses, gestures, and shifts in tone to highlight new ideas or using transitions and recaps to solidify learning. But ultimately, those moves should be intended to connect to listeners, not to try and impress them.
What drives all of this is choice: the choices we make about who we are and how we want to be seen, the choice we make about our main idea, and the choices we make about how to help our ideas resonate. At an institutional level, this means emphasizing oral assessments and oral literacy across the curriculum so young people are prepared to express original thought. At an interpersonal level, we need facilitators who can create the conditions for identity safety and Expression-Driven Teaching. At an individual level, we need more reflection and diverse ideas. As speakers, ask yourselves: what is your one thing that matters to you and what can you do to help it resonate with your audience?
I have a confession: I’ve used a lot of templates here today, and the TED template is super helpful! But at the end of the day, I want to be like my students. I want to be like Stella, because she has such a unique style of speaking that is just captivating. I want to be like Elohiym, because he is one of the best young coaches I’ve ever met. I want to be like DeAndre, because he can give insightful speeches on the spot. I want to be like Julia and Jemima, because they are bold, original writers. And I want to be like Mistura, because she knows how to turn her vulnerability into something creative and beautiful.
What I want to leave you with today is this: Speak for yourself. Our ultimate goal should be to feel free. Free to use our voices to reflect ourselves and have that resonate with even one other person. Learning how to do this is complicated, but the alternative of letting people speak on your behalf and tell your story for you is unthinkable. Sometimes, we need to do something uncomfortable if it expresses our identity. Sometimes, we need to break the template. So, I’ll take the first step (take off shoes), and hope you’ll join me. Thank you.