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Home > News and views > Public speaking competitions in the new age

Public speaking competitions in the new age

The enormous potential in developing public speaking skills in classrooms and launching individual talent has long been understood and appreciated by Lincolnshire’s branch which has a long history of energetically supporting the ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition, passing the baton dynamically as committee members transition. But this year was different. As Covid hit school activities hard, we were clear that the need for activities beyond the narrowest of curriculum catch up items was vital to keep critical thinking active and to ensure this generation of school children develop the skills key to achieving their potential and to allow them to be a fully included and heard part of society going forward. So we were delighted to nurse an adapted programme through two rounds of Zoom heats with technology enabling us to see schools across a larger Midlands region extending across the five counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire.

Learning to adapt public speaking to the times

In 2020, we had been unsure about how well the competition could work on Zoom with many feeling it a pale imitation of the ‘real thing’.  However, world events quickly dispelled any notion that communicating on such platforms as Zoom was somehow a less important activity, just different.  Zoom and its equivalents are here to stay. We heard that some universities now conduct initial interviews online so Zoom skills are becoming crucial.

Our previous year’s lockdown event saw students struggling with wifi in bedrooms and living rooms; this year, schools explored tech boundaries and discovered how to avoid feedback, how to share equipment, and how to use chat boxes, and they strengthened their ability to adapt on the hoof and not be fazed when problems occurred.  The determination of teachers to get their students in a room after school and do their ‘bit’ was testament to their dedication and commitment.

We successfully navigated through the first round of five heats and, with heavy hearts, made the call to convert what was planned to be an in-person second round to Zoom as uncertainty hit schools’ and our own planning abilities.  But the schools that arrived in the two second heats showed us how much they had learned from the first at times patchy experience: delivery became more assured and equipment more reliable.  The starting line up of 23 teams from 12 schools was whittled down to five regional finalists: Loughborough Grammar School, Caistor Grammar School, Stamford Endowed Schools, Belper School and Oundle School.

Up-close & Personal

Asked if we could host an actual in-person regional final, a first for us, the Lincolnshire branch was thrilled at the prospect of seeing students we had watched grow as virtual communicators now up close and in person. Luckily for us, the University of Lincoln proved just as committed and its head of schools and colleges engagement, Ian McGowan, provided us with an ideal space for the event – an auditorium that wasn’t too daunting along with a cool and airy open space in which to get to know each other and hold topic briefing break outs. Despite our worst fears and sleepless nights, at 1.30pm on Saturday 12 March, all teams showed up, with their teachers and supporters in tow, all fully prepared with fresh topics.

Taming initial nerves and quickly adapting to a new environment, the five teams, and 15 participants in all, gave super performances, displaying intelligence, humour and passion as well as respect and kindness. For some schools, this was the first experience of a public speaking competition and, for most competitors, it was a personal first. All (including us volunteers) left a little wiser and hopefully the experience was of great help to students and teachers. The judges’ retiring room radiated heat from discussions over the super tight margins but, thanks to a consistency across all three team members, Oundle School (pictured) won the day and will compete at the national final at Churchill College, Cambridge, in May, with its chair Iona scooping the best chair award; Loughborough’s Anshul won best speaker and Oscar won best questioner.

‘It takes a village to raise a child’

The old proverb it takes a village to raise a child can be well adapted to the ESU’s 60-year-old public speaking competition: in addition to the ESU’s hard working Competitions Team, it takes a large team of volunteers and supportive teachers, parents and carers to raise a young public speaker.

Usually one of the most challenging parts of running schools’ competitions is finding a team of volunteers with the skills, passion and commitment to do our young competitors justice.  Hosting seven evenings of heats, lasting three to four hours each, required recruiting a large number of already busy and much in demand individuals.

While all volunteers are required to do an online ESU training course, much of the role is a voyage of discovery, aided by tips passed from one to another.  After what at times felt like a mad scramble to recruit judges, we ended up with a cornucopia of experienced and new volunteers, each with a different background in communication and together representing a colourful spectrum of skills which added a diversity and depth to the experience for students and which made our time spent together fascinating, challenging and entertaining even before starting the job at hand.

All of us had to adapt to the competition’s virtual version idiosyncrasies – it turns out that computer’s audio programmes cleverly edit out noises making the job of timekeepers harder as  bells become inaudible. And we also had an additional techie role of Zoom host to find, requiring some familiarity with Zoom-type programmes, good communication skills and the ability to stay calm in the face of frustration – a complex role that most of us naturally shrink from.

And then the regional final volunteer team had to return to the in-person format with the job of making tough decisions made harder with students’ fresh young faces full of hope and excitement before them.  It was heartening to see such positive feedback from our volunteers about how much they enjoyed their experience and wonderful to see how much care and compassion went into judges’ decisions.

Special thanks to Team 2021-2022 – our timekeepers, zoom host and judges:-

Michael Barringer, Rosie Burke, Rachel Burch, Grace Cameron, Camilla Carlbom Flinn, Julian Free, Mike Graydon, Katherine Hannah, Caroline Manners, Roey Paige, Ellen Punter, John Raine, Rosemary Sage, Glenys Stirk , Nick Thorne, Steph Thorne, Janet Thornton, Giles Walter





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