I have no explanation for why I wanted to compete in speech and debate. Most parents force their kids to participate; I asked my parents to let me. The stereotypical public speaker is charismatic and outgoing; I was quiet and reserved.
But I attended a summer camp as a 15-year-old and noticed that some of the most articulate students were talking about this thing called debate that they did. I came home intrigued and eventually asked my parents if I could try it. They said yes, so I signed up to give a speech for the last local homeschool tournament of the year, somehow made it to the final round, and knew I had found a new passion.
Over the course of the next seven years (three in high school and four in college), I competed in five forms of debate, five speech events, moot court, mock trial, and Model UN. Tournaments took me to at least 16 states (lots of road trips!) and Berlin, Germany.
In God’s perfect plan a debate scholarship helped me graduate debt free from Patrick Henry College where I became one of the debate team coaches and met my husband (on the debate team, in case you were wondering).
I share that to say that speech and debate played a major role in my life through high school and college. More than any other class or activity, it shaped me academically, professionally, and personally.
The skills learned and experience gained from competition gave me the confidence to present in front of an audience. But they gave me much more than just that.
I learned that before you can convey an idea to someone else it first has to be clear in your own head. Debate taught me to organize my thoughts first before I try to communicate them. That skill served me well in writing college papers.
I learned to stand up and start speaking even when I didn’t feel ready.
I learned to smile and keep going even when I thought I was giving a terrible speech.
I learned the difference between an assertion and an argument.
I learned that communication involves both speaking and listening.
I learned that being able to speak publicly sets you apart in the real world because almost no one wants to do it.
I even learned that talking in front of a crowd can actually be fun.
I learned there are two sides to every issue. While there are many arguments that are worth having, there are many others that are not. I learned that knowing the difference takes wisdom and discernment.
And I learned that it’s possible to sound convincing without truly understanding your subject matter. Thankfully I also learned that rhetorical skill divorced from truth and virtue is dangerous to both the speaker and the listener.
It’s that final lesson that defines my philosophy for teaching public speaking. I firmly believe this is one of the most important and most dangerous skills anyone can possess. Effective communicators have always influenced history powerfully, both for good and bad. And I expect that no technological innovation will ever replace the power of the spoken word.
My approach to public speaking is simple. I teach students the practical skills to communicate well and challenge them to learn these skills alongside a humble pursuit of truth and personal cultivation of virtue.
Next week I’ll be sharing some practical thoughts on how to incorporate these skills into K-12 learning based on my own experiences as a student and teacher. Be sure to check back for that!
And for those of you in the Washington DC area, I’m offering public speaking workshops this summer for students in grades 3-12. They will offer a fun, interactive introduction to public speaking, designed for students with no prior experience. Check out the full details here and contact me to register or get more information!