Public speaking - Martin Scicluna
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Public speaking - Martin Scicluna

I have just had the pleasure of judging a public speaking competition in Gozo. It was organised by the Gozo branch of the English Speaking Union. The eight children participating consisted of boys and girls aged about 15 or 16 years, with the exception of one remarkable girl who was 11 (a future star).

This was the first public speaking competition in English for Gozitan students. The children were drawn from three Church and State schools in Gozo: the Seminary, the Gozo College Secondary School and the Bishop’s Conservatory.

Contestants were asked to speak on the theme of ‘The Island of Gozo’ and then invited to deliver an impromptu speech on another topic (‘If Cats Ruled the World’ and ‘Three Keys to a Happy Life’ were among the eight topics).

This was an outstandingly impressive performance. The students were uniformly confident, articulate, enthusiastic, informative and persuasive. It was a pleasure to listen to them. Gozitan education should be proud of them and of the English Speaking Union’s efforts in training them.

I am always amazed by how undervalued public speaking and oral skills are in the education world. Employers today insist on good communications abilities when seeking recruits. More and more, however, find they end up with staff who have impressive exam results, but cannot string a sentence together.

All children should learn how to talk confidently and candidly so that when they become the politicians, chief executive officers and business leaders of tomorrow they can do it to the best of their abilities. Everybody who aspires to be in a leadership position should be able to speak in an articulate and authentic manner.

In a world of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, we must not overlook the power of speech. Our education system must help people to find their voice. Disadvantaged children in State schools who haven’t been taught to express themselves properly – a factor which holds them back significantly in interviews and in the workplace – should receive the benefit of learning how to communicate more effectively as a central part of their learning skills. They should be taught how to discover their voices and to express themselves clearly and dispassionately.

Education policy today is almost entirely about being literate and numerate, rather than being able to “orate” or, less grandly, speak clearly in public. A noisy class is often regarded as a disruptive one, with some studies in the United Kingdom showing the average child at secondary school only saying on average four or five words a lesson. Children should be encouraged to discuss, argue, persuade and, above all, question. No wonder teenagers are often seen as monosyllabic.

The Maltese grow up into the embarrassing, shouting, gesticulating, inarticulate people we so often see on television discussion programmes

And – because they have not been taught how to argue constructively – the Maltese grow up into the embarrassing, shouting, gesticulating, inarticulate people we so often see on television discussion programmes, unable to question an argument or to persuade others by force of reason and advocacy: the power of persuasion. It is largely because as students they were not taught to marshal their thoughts through first thinking and deliberating, then articulating them logically and persuasively through confident public speaking.

Rhetoric – public speaking and the power of speech – needs to be learnt. In Malta, it needs to be in clear Maltese or English. It needs a strong message. For those who wish to learn more about rhetoric and democracy, I recommend a new book by Philip Collins, Tony Blair’s former speech-writer, called When They Go Low, We go High (a phrase coined by Michelle Obama), which dissects great speeches from Pericles and Cicero, to Churchill, Kennedy, Obama and the present day, to show what makes a great speech great.

The scrutiny that public figures are now subjected to discourages them from expressing what they genuinely think. If they were more open and honest – politicians are famous for obfuscation – they would be trusted more.

CEOs are increasingly unwilling to say what they really think to the detriment of themselves and their companies. Fearful of being sued, they often turn a minor cock-up into a PR disaster by being obtuse or hiding behind “mission statements”. If they were more open they might be forgiven more easily.

I personally hate public speaking. But because of the jobs I have had to do in my working career, I have had to knuckle down and learn to do it. This, for what it’s worth, is what I’ve learnt.

First, decide on the structure of what you want to say so that the listener can clearly follow your line of argument. Your introduction should seize the audience’s attention, perhaps with a rhetorical question, a joke, quotation or a relevant story (there were some excellent examples in Gozo). It should tell them what the main point you are addressing is and puts your topic into context.

Next, the main part of your speech must be constructed in such a way as to persuade the audience of the merits of your argument. You will only persuade them if you can demonstrate credibility and your reasoning is compelling.

Try to have only a few key points and structure your speech around these. Consider both sides of the topic, but ultimately show that your line of reasoning leads to one clear conclusion. They need to believe that you are telling them this information for the right reasons, not simply because you want to sell them the idea, or because you have a hidden agenda. Finally, your conclusion must draw the threads together and remind the audience of your main argument.

But above all, good delivery of your speech is absolutely vital. Vary your tone of voice and pace of delivery during your speech to help keep the audience’s attention. Don’t rush. Take pauses to let your points sink in. Remember the power of the long pause. Be audible. Your pronunciation and articulation must be clear. The language you use must be appropriate to your audience. Your appearance is an important part of the impression you make on the audience.

Like the wonderful children I met in Gozo, practice hard your public speaking skills and develop the confidence to do it well.

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