Kat Lam, teacher and ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition coordinator, tells us how she prepares her students for the online heats in the PSC
Up and down the country, students, teachers and coaches are preparing for the local heats of the ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition. Now that round one takes place on Zoom, there are slightly different and highly useful skills that may need to be learnt, which may require extra preparation from some students and teachers.
The irony of a public speaking competition happening in a private space is not lost even if this hybrid model is a necessary precaution. But there are clear benefits to this style of event: there’s no need for teams to travel, for example, and events can start and finish earlier. The ability to present to camera is becoming increasingly valuable as remote and flexible working arrangements continue. This hybrid arrangement is the perfect opportunity for students to develop a new skillset.
Take a look at my top tips to prepare your team!
1. What to say: preparing for competition
From my experience of preparing teams in the last five years, the best way to ensure your students are ready is to support your Speaker’s speechwriting. A well-researched, structured and crafted speech enables your Speaker to stop worrying about what they will say and concentrate on expressing their ideas effectively. Allow students to choose their own areas of interest: we all know engagement supports motivation. Their speech can then be used by both the Chair and Questioner to practise their roles: the Chair is able to prepare how they will introduce themselves and their Questioner, as well as having opportunities to summarise what is said. The Questioner can hone their skills of listening and interrogation while extending the Speaker’s ideas, identifying areas for further research and offering alternative perspectives on the topic. Valuable guidance and resources are available on the ESU’s competition page.
2. How to say it: the value of vocabulary
Your students may be incredibly erudite. Your students may come from literacy-rich households in which they develop a laudable lexis and respect for register. Your students may have a full appreciation of the subtlety of nuanced language. However, many do not. Some students, particularly those who have experienced deprivation or come from low-income households, start with lower language levels. As teachers and coaches, we must ensure students have access to Tier 2 and Tier 3 language through explicit vocabulary teaching . Though they may have familiarity with Tier 2 language, their ability to fully understand the concept being discussed can be unreliable, potentially hindering their critical engagement with peers. Even our most capable students are empowered by unequivocal exposure to and instruction with Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary.
But it’s not just about exposing them to higher-level vocabulary. Knowing what words mean and when and how to use them to best express their message gives them agency and power. It is about giving your students a voice.
3. Where to say it: the importance of practising live
The best part of public speaking competitions is speaking publicly! Most students competing already have some degree of confidence to speak to an audience. However, nerves will become apparent as the first Heat looms closer. This is where face-to-face practice can be invaluable, boosting your students’ confidence and creating a cohesive team dynamic that shines through even when they are separated over Zoom.
I run a Public Speaking Club which meets once a week and is where I encourage my teams to practise their roles with each other. This has largely been supported by the online ESU resources as well as some of the activities that were delivered in our first year of competition through one of the ESU’s Discover Your Voice workshops.
4. What it sounds like: fake it till you make it
Pitch, pace, pause and tone are instrumental. Having fun with words and being in control of how you communicate captivates the audience. It is also an essential ‘soft skill’ that is transferrable and desirable in school and the wider world. As most people are acutely aware, the way you present yourself and your ability to communicate eases transitions to further or higher education and training and employment, in addition to increasing access to opportunities at work. All these elements can aid social mobility. 
Many educators and public speaking coaches enjoy an audience. Team practice makes for a great moment to remove the teaching persona and model your own oratory skills. I often take part in warm up games, tongue twisters (think Cary Grant in Singing in the Rain) or any other talking starter – do check out the ESU’s lesson plans and resources! – to extend students’ confidence and demonstrate conventions and expectations of this type of talk. Encourage your speakers to think about where they need to use pace or tone to emphasise specific points. What do they want their audience to remember?
5. What it looks like: body language and performance
As part of our practice sessions, I ensure that students are familiar with the format of the live rounds. We set up a table with three chairs (from left to right: Speaker, Chair, Questioner) and I sit at the back of the room to ensure clarity and volume. Even though the first round will be on Zoom, the familiarity with this arrangement will set the tone for your team. It allows your team to consider the non-verbal cues that make for engaging presentations. In the previous year’s competition, successful speakers often stood when delivering the speeches, aiding their presence and purpose; this felt less necessary for Chairs and Questioners, but in live practice standing aids the honing of soft skills and sharpens self-assurance.
Things we often discuss, think about and practise are: the politician’s point (the use of the thumb for emphasis); listening faces (you are still part of the presentation even if you’re not talking at that moment); speaker’s stance and movement (avoid advice from the actors in Blackadder III: Sense and Senility) and the use of notes (entirely acceptable – just please don’t read!).
6. How to do Round One: practical Zoom advice
Most of you will have been on a Zoom call in the last 18 months, but it does feel very different in a competition setting.
Firstly, make sure your students have the necessary equipment and a quiet space for them to take part. For many, this shouldn’t be a concern. However, these are two fundamentals that can be a barrier for disadvantaged students. Consider if there is a way for students to compete in school if necessary. I would suggest separate laptops or machines. If you are in the same room, make sure that those not speaking are muted to avoid feedback loops and sound distortion; this is easily manageable as your speaker will be working with another Chair and Questioner.
Ensure to access the meeting in good time. Most heats will take place at 4:30pm, with teams invited to join the call from 4:15. A good Zoom host should invite competitors to test cameras and microphone equipment once they have joined the call. It is not obligatory for cameras to be on and teams will not be penalised by judges if they are not. However, having the camera on reminds students that they are ‘on’ and aids their performance. Do remind them to consider where they position their camera to enable them to make eye contact with their audience.
When logging into the meeting, students should make sure others know who they are. They should use their first name, school and role: this will help your Zoom host, MC and judges keep track of who is in attendance and speaking. Including your preferred pronouns could also be helpful.
Many competitors will be at home when they take part, so what should they wear? It’s important to note that students will not be penalised for their appearance. Last year during the competition we had an array of outfit choices: full school uniform; ‘casual’ school uniform (blazers and shirts, but no ties); smart casual wear; everyday casual wear . . . It really comes down to your students’ preference.
If you or your team encounter any technical difficulties, your Zoom host will be there to support you. Usually, the teacher/coach and the students experiencing the difficulties will be placed in a breakout room to try to remedy the problem. Should a student need to re-join the meeting, time will be given for them to re-establish their connection.
If you have further queries or concerns, get in touch with ESU competitions at firstname.lastname@example.org or your local PSC Co-ordinator prior to your event, who will be able to troubleshoot.
And finally . . .
Thank you for the time you have spent preparing your students. Your investment in them, regardless of their starting points, is priceless and even more important after the disruptions to education and socialising that we have all experienced.
Whether this is your first time entering the ESU-Public Speaking Competition or you are a veteran of the contest, I know you will enjoy watching your students rising to the challenges of both the event and the online nature of it!
Kat teaches English and Media Studies at The Taunton Academy. Having reached the national finals during her own school days, she now coaches the ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition (PSC) teams for her school, while supporting the Taunton branch of the ESU to coordinate its competition. She successfully coached the winning team of the 2020/2021 PSC – find out how they benefitted from being part of the competition here.
 Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, 2002)
 Michael Donnelly, Predrag Lažeti?, Andres Sandoval-Hernandez, Kalyan Kumar and Sam Whewall, Social Mobility Commission, An Unequal Playing Field: Extra-curricular activities, Soft Skills and Social Mobility. An_Unequal_Playing_Field_report.pdf (publishing.service.gov.uk) p. 53.