A debate case for public speaking

Sean Lee, Staff Writer

After having navigated through the sea of cardboard trifolds and the overwhelming, siren-like calls of students coercing you to join their club (using candy and baked goods to draw you in), you probably still have no idea of what clubs are like in the Upper Division. What types of clubs are you really interested in? What clubs do you think you’ll have the most fun in? What clubs have people told you to join that you’re not so sure about? Here’s one piece of advice: get out of your comfort zone and try an activity that entails public speaking.

Public speaking and communication are a few of the most important skills that you’ll need to thrive at Horace Mann and any academic, social, or professional environment you find yourself in beyond your years on campus. The ability to ace a presentation, talk to strangers with ease, and speak your mind are crucial skills that are best developed starting from high school, and joining clubs that encourage you to develop these tools during your freshman year — or any other year — is a great way to get started.

My introduction to public speaking wasn’t so smooth. During 6th grade, one of my teachers required multiple presentations and acting performances throughout the year. Without any prior experience with speaking or acting in front of a crowd, I was absolutely terrified. Every time I walked up to the front of the classroom, it felt like my heart was going to explode. My legs shook uncontrollably as I croaked out nearly-incoherent sentences: stage fright was taking over my entire body. Even just the mention of presentations would make my heart flutter, and I could barely muster the courage to present when the time came. Frankly, I was embarrassed at my lack of courage and jealous of my peers who had a knack for public speaking.

So, in an attempt to overcome my challenge, I sought out ways to improve my public speaking. In  the summer before 7th grade, I found myself in a debate class, excited to improve my communication skills while arguing over whether television was beneficial for people’s health. After less than a month of preparation, I placed second at my first ever debate tournament: a small in-house tournament with few competing teams. Nonetheless, I was hooked.

Ever since my first debate class in August of 2017, public speaking has served me invaluably. I’ve learned important tricks for communicating effectively, like maintaining eye contact, projecting your voice, and emphasizing certain words or phrases to solidify a point. The improvement in my conversational skills has been extremely helpful in communicating with peers and adults during meetings with teachers, important interviews, or talking to parents as a peer mentor. I’m not afraid to voice my opinion during class discussions, even when my thoughts about a certain event in a book might differ from other people’s interpretations. I even ran for class president in 8th grade and gave a speech in front of the entire school. Although I didn’t win, it still felt good to have my ideas heard by the community. These are just some ways the lessons I’ve learned through participating in public speaking-related events have motivated me, and while the use of these tools might differ in your personal circumstances, they are vital skills to have.

At this point, you might be wondering what clubs at Horace Mann can offer these wonderful opportunities to you. Here’s a quick list of a few activities that can help cultivate your public speaking skills — it’s definitely not comprehensive by any measure, but it’s a good place to start.

My personal favorite (I swear I’m not biased) is the Debate Team. On the Debate Team, you learn to speak eloquently, but you also learn how to argue and construct solid arguments that trump your opponents and effectively convince your judges. Debate helps develop your critical thinking skills, forcing you to think and speak on your feet (it’s a good thing, trust me) and teaching you how to research a variety of different topics, from the U.S. healthcare policy to the NATO defense commitments in the Baltic States. These research and critical thinking skills have served me well in history and English where students are often required to construct strong, logical arguments supported by the texts they read. Additionally, presentations in class have become much easier — communicating with your classmates and teachers is less stressful when you have practice with these skills. Plus, you’ll now have useful rhetorical techniques to keep your audience engaged.

Other activities that are also awesome choices to improve your confidence in speaking and presenting include the Model UN team, the Speech team, Mock Trial, Model Congress, and Parliamentary Debate, all of which help develop your communication and research skills for school and any future jobs you plan on pursuing.

I get it — stepping out of your comfort zone isn’t easy. You might be reluctant to join a club that forces you to talk in front of people when you don’t feel comfortable doing so, and your first exposure to these types of events might not be pleasant. But trust me — I understand the struggle just as well as you do, and from my own experience, I can confidently tell you that I don’t regret it one bit. I’ve gained so much from improving my public speaking and communication skills, and I’ve also made some great memories while doing so. Clubs at Horace Mann can provide the same experience for you, and no matter what grade you’re in, it’s never too late to start. On the other hand, if you have no hesitation about joining a public speaking club, then welcome to the team — you’re already as obnoxious as the rest of us.