Exploring Some of the Pros and Cons of Public Speaking Culture

Hi! I’m Amber, an intern at The Practice Space. I’m here to talk about my experience as a public speaker and some of the things I love about the world of speech and debate and some of the practices I think should be discarded.

 Keep: the fun!

I think public speaking tends to get very serious, because we associate some very serious emotions with it: anxiety, stress, passion, urgency, etc. When I first began to speak, in school and at clubs, I decided that speaking must be for very mature, solemn, formal people, and that silliness wasn’t a part of being a speaker. I was okay with this, because I (like a lot of young people) wanted to be mature and solemn and formal. And, in some instances, public speaking is emotionally charged, passionate, intimate, and quiet. But, as I learned at TPS, public speaking can also be a lot of fun. My first cows vs. horses debate was very freeing, because I learned that being a speaker isn’t about being one thing. Informal and silly speaking activities are crucial for experimenting with using different vocal colors and styles, trying out new forms of speaking, and breaking up the intense experiences with the whimsical. Having fun as a team is important to creating a community where everyone feels comfortable to be themselves, and I hope incorporating fun with speaking will remain a TPS tradition!

Discard: the emphasis on small details

In school, my first experiences with public speaking were overwhelmed with constant judgement of the verbal fillers that slipped into our presentations (it was so important that the number of ums and likes in our speeches often factored into our grade). As a young student, I began to direct more of my effort towards the perfect delivery of my content than the meaning of the content itself. This practice resulted in some lasting negative consequences, at least for me. I struggled to feel comfortable speaking authentically and felt like I needed an unreasonable amount of preparation to speak fluidly. Working with TPS was my first experience learning that authenticity is one of the most important elements of powerful communication. Learning how to speak like myself (which includes some likes and ums, and some other norm-deviating characteristics that make my speaking unique) let me be passionate and feel free to express myself without worrying about specifics. Now that I feel comfortable having control over how I want to speak, I am able to work on reducing my usage of “like” without feeling forced or judged. The takeaway is that valuing confidence first, and not aesthetic details, allows speakers to flourish.

 Discard: the emphasis on winning

Some of my most trying experiences in speech and debate were the times I’d get in an informal debate with some of the more privileged members of our team. Usually, it would be me arguing one side (which was always my true opinion), and two or three guys playing devil’s advocate. I wasn’t the best debater out there, so I would be backed into a corner, my argument would be totally demolished, and my opponents would walk away, laughing, because they didn’t have an emotional stake in the debate, and it was fun to intellectually attack things that didn’t impact them but were serious and important to me. I know I’m making them out to sound evil, and they aren’t, but the privileged systems that promote this type of exchange are evil. Sometimes I wonder how these debates could have gone differently if we had been taught about debate in a different way. If both sides of the debate were praised for the richness, imagination, and development of their arguments, if viewpoints were not fully dismissed because the other side argued better, if debaters were challenged to acknowledge their privilege, and if debates were viewed more collaboratively, I think my fellow debaters might have altered their practices. Debate is awesome, and can still exist in an equitable world, but I think we need to seriously reconsider our current practices so that everyone feels welcome and safe.

 Keep: the community connections and mentorship

The speaking community is one of the strongest, most supportive communities that I have been a part of. In my experience at school and TPS, I have been able to both look up to mentors, role models, and inspiring kids of all ages as well as become a mentor myself and watch as youth become strong leaders and advocates. In order to feel comfortable speaking like ourselves, it is key that we are part of an equitable environment in which it is okay to be emotionally vulnerable and ask questions and that we feel like there are others looking out for us. To reference one of our recent blog posts, “Equity is an Environment”, the first step to creating an equitable environment is to foster connections and build meaningful relationships. I am so proud to be a part of a community that has created the infrastructure to ensure that newcomers to the world of speech and debate feel welcome, valued, and well-resourced, and that experienced community members have the opportunity to help others on their speaking journey.

I want to end by saying thank you, and that you are a part of a community that values you for who you are. I hope you have a wonderful day! Remember to keep expressing yourself.

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