Meet Simon Bucknall, Chair of the London branch Oracy Sub-committee
Simon Bucknall remembers exactly the moment he became interested in public speaking. ‘It was the Friday of the first May bank holiday in 2001,’ he says. ‘It was my last day at work in my first job and I had to give a speech to say goodbye. I hadn’t prepared, I didn’t know what to say – it was just awful.’
His decision to improve, which he did by joining Toastmasters International (a worldwide network of clubs promoting communication and public speaking) and participating in various public speaking competitions around the world, has had extraordinary consequences. Although he was only intending to learn a few tricks to help him in his career, in fact his newfound skills have led to an entirely new profession – that of a public speaker and coach – a trajectory that would have been entirely inconceivable to his younger self. ‘I’d done a little bit of debating at school, and I was a contestant in the ESU’s Public Speaking Competition,’ he says, ‘but I had no idea that such a career was even possible.’
As a child growing up in the 80s, Simon was aware of Margaret Thatcher and Simon Heseltine being considered among the great speakers of the day. His great-grandfather had been a bodyguard of Churchill’s (‘because of that personal connection he was absolutely on my radar,’ says Simon. ‘I listened to his recordings and read his speeches’) but, by far the greatest influence on him was comedy – Blackadder, Have I Got News for You and, in particular, Rory Bremner. ‘There is a huge amount to be learnt from observing really good stand-up comedians interacting with a live audience,’ says Simon. ‘The language, the delivery, the speed, the way they deal with difficult questions or hecklers – good comedians are an absolute case study in that.’
It was serendipitous then that when we recently posted a video that Bremner, an alumnus of the ESU, had kindly made for us, on LinkedIn, Simon spotted it and was spurred into action. ‘I thought, “this is genius”,’ he laughs. ‘If Rory Bremner is telling me I need to support the ESU then that’s it – I’m in!’ He dropped a line via the website asking how he could connect to the London branch and has since agreed to chair its oracy sub-committee. ‘I thought about it for about five nanoseconds and then realised this could be an opportunity to contribute to developing and promoting oracy in a different way – and, hopefully, for large numbers of young people.’
In truth, Simon had already begun to explore this. Alongside his successful coaching career (he has trained FTSE 100 executives as well as entrepreneurs, politicians, MBAs, teachers, refugees and academics), Simon is a former Associate Trainer for The Jack Petchey “Speak Out!” Challenge. As part of this, he delivered public speaking workshops in over 100 state secondary schools across London and Essex, and, through talking to the teachers there, is keenly aware of the need for oracy skills and the difficulties the teachers face in finding time for them. ‘It is outrageous,’ he says. ‘There are critical points in one’s life and career which will be determined by one’s effectiveness in spoken communication, so what could be more important in education than to help prepare young people for these? And yet, the ability to speak effectively counts for zero marks in the secondary National Curriculum. Students are assessed more on their ability to decode a work of 19th century non-fiction in an essay than on being able to put together a presentation.’
That said, he is also at pains to point out that public speaking is often wrongly considered only in terms of presentations and making speeches to an audience. ‘The true benefits are far, far wider than that. Most public speaking is voluntary – it’s about being able to have your say, be that in meetings, in relationships or any other forum. Public speaking trains you to become skilled at stepping up and speaking out and contributing – and just how important a skill is that in life?’
It’s a subject Simon feels passionate about, and he chose it as the theme of his TedxLondon talk in 2018.’ ‘There’s a big difference between being functionally competent in a language and being effective with that language – speaking and listening are life skills. We absolutely should be teaching them to young people,’ he says. ‘How many stories are left untold, how many lives are that little bit less fulfilled, not because people aren’t capable, but because they were never fully equipped with the skills they needed to communicate their ideas, their views and the true value of their experiences with impact?’
As he knows both from his personal experience and through work with the Jack Petchey Foundation, the results can be remarkable. ‘I’ve seen the difference just a day’s worth of training can make on Year 10s, he says. ‘It’s not just about practical skills – they grow as human beings. They start to realise what they’re capable of.’
Simon’s top three tips to speak with confidence
- Clarity of thought is key. A clear, simple structure for your ideas is the foundation for great delivery. Impromptu speaking is a wonderful tool for that – you have to work really hard to formulate your ideas very quickly.
- Remember effective speaking is about the audience, not the speaker – it’s an opportunity to move an audience.
- Tell a story to make a point. Storytelling is gold and much of the most compelling storytelling potential that people have will be personal experience.