It is 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday. You are walking through the halls of a local high school. Well-dressed students are scattered throughout the building – talking to walls! You wonder, are you in an alternate universe? No, you are at a speech competition.
Just as you see athletes stretching on the sidelines to warm up for their events, speech and debate students talk to walls as they warm up for their speaking competition. Every year, tens of thousands of students volunteer their weekend time to prepare, practice and deliver presentations, be critiqued by adjudicators, and then use those tips and pointers to do it all over again the next weekend.
Many famous individuals have a history of involvement in competitive speech and debate, most notably Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer and Sonya Sotomayor. Entertainment superstars such as Oprah Winfrey, James Earl Jones, Adam Sandler, Stephen Colbert and Brad Pitt also participated in speech and/or debate. The competitive experience has alumni in the ranks of government leaders, including Richard Nixon, George McGovern, Karl Rove, Margaret Thatcher and Janet Reno.
The skills learned in competitive speech and debate are invaluable life skills. It has been well-documented that speaking activities can increase critical thinking, student confidence, and improve research and writing skills. Studies regarding Urban Debate Programs show participation in these activities have improved graduation rates, increased college enrollment and success, and decreased dropout rates. According to the Miami Herald, activist students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School credit their ability to articulate gun control issues to what they learned through their school’s speech and debate program.
Stories about famous individuals and outspoken activists get more attention, but speech activities positively impact everyone who participates. It may not turn all of them into government leaders, but some amazing transformations occur when students learn how to coherently express ideas. Speech and debate coaches around the nation all have stories about individuals who are positively impacted through their participation.
Speech activities can help students overcome fears, including George, a quiet 11th grade student who had just transferred to a new school. He didn’t know many people, so he decided to get involved in school activities. His first brave step was to sign up for the individual events program.
He walked into practice the first day and explained to the coach that he was deathly afraid of speaking in front of an audience, but he knew it was something he must overcome. So, with the help of his peers and coaches, George wrote his speech and worked on his visual aids. He practiced relentlessly both with coaches and on his own, and his tournament performance steadily improved.
George finished his first competitive season fifth in the state. The confidence that he gained through his participation will be with him for the rest of his life. He took that first step, and with the help of teachers and fellow students was able to conquer his fears.
Speaking skills can change the way people are perceived. Mila was a student who participated in individual events for four years. Through her participation, she developed into a confident and poised speaker. Between her freshman and sophomore years in college, she applied for a summer internship at Facebook.
The first interviewer was so impressed she bumped Mila up to the next level for an interview. This happened several more times, until Mila found herself interviewing for an internship as Mark Zuckerberg’s assistant. She then spent the summer with a group of elite interns working for the founder of Facebook. Mila has often credited her success and ability to secure the internship to her participation in individual events. That participation gave her the skills to present herself with the confidence needed to obtain the highly sought-after position.
Paolo was a young high school freshman when his parents thought it would be good for him to join the debate team. Paolo was not at all happy with the decision. He had a stutter that sapped his communication confidence. But in the end, he became a very successful debater.
Paolo discovered that his passion for issues and arguments enabled him to focus on content. This allowed him to set aside his lack of confidence, which resulted in virtually stutter-free speaking. It’s a similar situation to that portrayed in the movie “The King’s Speech.” When the Duke of York got angry, his stutter went away. Eventually, Paolo was able to use what he learned in debate to overcome his stutter in normal conversation. The confidence he gained through his participation changed his life.
Unfortunately, other priorities in schools are squeezing out these types of extracurricular activities. School districts around the country have been eliminating speech and debate programs in favor of other, sometimes government-mandated, curriculum. John F. Kennedy realized the importance of speech and debate activities in schools when he said in August of 1960, “I think debating in high school and college is the most valuable training whether for politics, the law, business or for service on community committees, such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters . . . I wish we had a good deal more debating in our educational institutions than we do now.”
All students need to be exposed to the communication skills learned through the unique activities of speech and debate. Every student could experience what tens of thousands of our students already have the opportunity to achieve. The pay-off: valuable skills that will be with them for the rest of their lives. Speech and debate students have found that talking to walls is a great way to practice for a real audience. A wall can be like a good audience because walls don’t heckle – they absorb input and often can reverberate valuable feedback.
Ruth Kay, Detroit Country Day School, Beverly Hills, Michigan, has been teaching and coaching speech and debate for more than 30 years. She has been a delegate, committee member and Wording Committee chair for the NFHS Debate Topic Selection Meeting. In 2002, Kay received the NFHS Citation Award.