This coming Friday marks a special anniversary in my life: It was on that date fifty years ago that I began speaking in public. I haven’t stopped since.`
The occasion was the Lamar High School speech tournament. I was an eighth grade student at Spring Branch Junior High (now Middle School), and the exuberant speech coach, Sherry Billing, recruited me for the debate team. I was paired with a debonair ninth grader, Todd Fredricks, and off we went to Lamar on the afternoon of October 2, 1959.
The national debate topic that year was: “Resolved that the United States should substantially increase the regulation of labor unions.” Just before the gathering at Lamar, Congress passed a major law regulating unions, and I remember hoping that organizers would call off the tournament, much as a nervous first-time athlete might hope for rain. That’s when Mrs. Billing taught me the important lesson in politics that no matter what happens and no matter who wins or loses, debate goes on.
Todd and I won three debates and lost two, not well enough to make the championship rounds but a decent start. As raw and stumbling as my performance had been, I was permanently hooked and kept up speech and debate at SBJH and afterwards at Spring Branch and Memorial high schools under coach Rex Fleming.
My adolescent dreams were of a career in politics, which after a fashion I managed to achieve. But truly everything I have done since that weekend at Lamar fifty years ago, not simply seeking and serving in public office, has involved public speaking.
I joke that I talk to groups of one or more. But in fact the same skills apply whether you are making an address to a large audience or an argument to a small committee. You must marshal your points and present the most important ones in a manner that demonstrates knowledge, confidence, and passion, even if in truth you have none of the above.
Over the course of my life, I have found that student debating has not been as useful as another category of competition called extemporaneous speaking, or “extemp”. In this event, contestants draw three slips of paper on which are written topics out of the news, selecting one and preparing for half an hour before delivering the talk. This is much closer to what debaters in a legislative body do than the formalized, repetitious business of arguing pro- and con- the same subject all year.
Perhaps even better training comes from a competition called “impromptu”, in which the student draws just one subject and, whatever it is, speaks on it after only very brief preparation. In my day the topics tended to be quirky and tricky like “fingernails” or “popcorn”, but having to talk about a subject someone suddenly throws at you is what politicians, business executives, broadcast journalists, academics, and others must do all the time.
In years of inflicting my views on many an innocent Rotarian (who also has to feed me), I try to abide by the following rules for effective speechmaking:
Always say something: Many speakers may not fully realize that their audiences actually expect to hear them say at least one thing they may not have known, may never have considered, or may never have heard in quite the same way.
Be brief. It is absolutely true that no one ever complained about a speech being too short. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address can still deeply affect us almost a century and a half after its first delivery, as much for its brevity as for its eloquence.
Speak in simple terms.This does not mean talking down to people. Speakers who use jargon and “big words” can confuse, lose, bore, and insult an audience. Those who talk in a direct, down-to-earth manner, on the other hand, can have a positive and powerful impact. “Short words are best, and old words when short are best of all,” Winston Churchill once declared. Nothing better illustrates his point than his sentence: Every word is just one syllable, and yet the effect is clear, strong, and elegant.
Be pleasant and conversational. If you can be humorous and the occasion is right for it, be that, too. But jokes are risky and wisecracks riskier yet. It’s better to deploy an amusing anecdote or quotation than to tell the same joke that a previous speaker used minutes before you walked into the hall.
Finally, talk about them, not yourself. You may open with a self-deprecatory reference or story, but quickly leave the fascinating topic of You to praise the audience and talk about what they’re interested in hearing.
Some extra advice for today’s first-time speech students is to remember that the purpose of public speaking is not to hear yourself talk but to move an audience to action — if only to vote for your team in a debate.
Pericles, the Athenian statesman of the fifth century B.C., once said of his own speechmaking: “When Pericles speaks, people say, ‘How well he speaks!’ But when Demosthenes speaks, people say, ‘Let us march!’”