Talking the Talk

Talking the Talk

Just the thought of public speaking may fill many grown-ups with dread, but effective communication is a life skill that improves with practice and can be mastered from an early age. Here, we highlight a selection of the Cotswolds’ leading schools at which there are opportunities for pupils to develop and refine their verbal prowess…

Great orators have always been admired – and the huge popularity of TED talks is testament to the fact that this is still true. But being able to express one’s ideas convincingly to a group of people is more than just an ego trip: throughout life, there are times when ideas, feelings or beliefs require open discussion. Whilst the lucky few are born with a seemingly instinctive ability to convey their viewpoint both succinctly and powerfully, it is a skill that most of us have to work on. So what makes a good orator and is it something that can be taught?

Being able to communicate effectively is one of the most important skills a pupil can learn. In an increasingly virtual world, where the most common form of communication now involves ’likes’ or 142 character ’tweets’, communicating verbally with
clarity and confidence is a skill that could easily be
lost. Debating is a particularly good way for pupils to learn how to present their ideas face-to-face.

Starting young is certainly helpful in building confidence and developing effective communication skills. At Burford School, there are many public speaking opportunities offered both internally and externally: class presentations and reading out loud are regular features of lesson planning, and pupils are encouraaged to participate in external public speaking and debating competitions such as Youth Speaks, MUNGA and Debating Matters. As the school’s current Head Girl, Elspeth Martin, says, “Public speaking isn’t just important if you want to go into politics or public life, everyone has to know how to communicate and the benefits of public speaking are huge.” 

Buford School's pupils practicing public speaking

There is also a big focus on confidence building at Beaudesert Park School, in Minchinhampton. Headmaster James Womersley explains the link between public speaking and building confidence in children: “When children speak in front of others, it helps build their confidence. Here at Beaudesert, we see proof of this every day, which is why we ensure that there are many, many opportunities for pupils to have a go from Nursery age up to when they leave, aged 13.”   

Another school at which pupils are encouraged to present to their peers and participate in public speaking events is The Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water. Here, presentations back to peer groups often form the natural conclusion to a session of group work – for example, English students presenting to each other on an aspect of Elizabethan theatre; or Business Studies students presenting their marketing plans as part of a controlled assessment. 

Pupils at The Cotswold School are also encouraged to strengthen their public speaking skills as part of day-to-day activities. If there is a specific STEM day, teams may give a presentation on a robot they have constructed or a wind turbine they have devised; and on PSHE days, students are put into groups to discuss ethical questions. Additionally, the school has a Public Speaking Club as well as a Debating Society.  

At Dean Close School, in Cheltenham, the use of debating and public speaking across all lessons is a vital tool in learning. Cathy Feltham, who jointly runs debating at the school, says, “This experience helps pupils understand the power of public speaking and presentation and the fact that it is harder than it looks – pupils always appreciate this when listening to guest speakers. It also helps boost their confidence. Sometimes, it is the quiet characters who can be the best public speakers, whilst the outwardly confident and boisterous ones can struggle when in front of their peers, on their own. It is a great way of educating the students on a topic and ensuring that they are aware of the whole picture and all sides of the argument so that they can make their own judgments and not just rely on others to tell them what to think.”     4

Every year group from the Junior School to the Upper Sixth at Warwick School is encouraged to become involved in debating. At the very top level, Warwick School boys were selected to represent England and went to Armenia to debate in the style of the European Union about pressing issues of the day. Boys from all year groups have also been selected to debate for Oxford, Cambridge, ESU, Warwick, Nottingham and Bristol competitions. These sorts of competitions have provided them with opportunities to speak in the Oxford Union debating chamber as well as debating alongside modern heroes such as Malala.  

Oliver Layzell, a pupil in the Lower Sixth at Warwick School, explains why he enjoys debating: “I enjoy it because debating is a game of wits. You not only have to think about your own case but what the other team is going to say, and how you can counter them. You also get to look into some very interesting and often rather controversial topics. 

“I’d say that there is something very satisfying about making a speech in public that you have worked on for some time, especially if it turns out to be effective. Talk of ’developing life skills’ may sound hollow, but I’ve found that it really is the case with debating. You learn an argumentative style that is encouraged in essays, especially as you get to
A levels. After speaking in public often enough, you become more confident in doing so and you get the experience to justify that confidence. However, I think the most important thing I’ve taken out of debating is the ability to consider properly both sides of any argument, whatever my own views.”  

At The Cheltenham Ladies’ College, the whole school takes part in a debate called The Beale Debate, which is a competition between staff, girls and Guild members (alumnae). Three inter-house public speaking competitions are held in each division (Lower College, Upper College and Sixth Form), and the school also has a junior Public Speaking Club and a Senior Debating Society, which enters the national and local competitions, such as ESU Schools’ Mace, the Cambridge Schools Competition and the Davis and Partners Competition. Girls who may feel less than totally confident to start with are encouraged to plan for debates and speeches with guidance and support from the school’s more experienced debaters. They are then able to start with shorter debates and gradually build up their confidence. 

Jonathan Marchant, Head of Sixth Form at the school, sums up a good orator as follows:
“They have confidence, poise and a measured delivery, as well as presenting a structured argument that is substantiated with precise evidence. They need to be able to listen carefully to the opposition’s argument in order to find flaws in it.”

Understanding how to communicate ideas confidently and clearly, and learning how to field questions without preparation, are important skills, particularly during university and professional interview. These are qualities that the school encourages the girls to develop during their time at College.

Malvern College is one of the only schools to offer debating as part of the curriculum in the Foundation Year (year 9). A Debating Society flourishes and pupils participate in competitions and fixtures all around the country, as well as inter-house Debating Competitions. The school also encourages younger students by running an annual Debating Day for prep schools: debating is considered a very important skill to develop for life beyond Malvern and for future careers. 

Dean Close School also has a strong tradition of debating. This year, its Sixth Form Team won the regional championships and will represent the Midlands at the National EYP Finals. On a termly basis, the school runs current affairs debates, known as Library Debates, and during last year’s election campaign, it invited all local parliamentary candidates to talk about their views and to be questioned by pupils. The school’s English department also holds regular poetry recitals and Literary Lunches at which literature lovers can discuss their favourite texts with other likeminded teachers and pupils over lunch.

Through public speaking, students at Malvern St James Girls’ School are given the opportunity to develop their own ideas and take part in a lively weekly debate. Mrs Trish Woodhouse, the school’s Headmistress, says, “Speaking in front of an audience is at the top of many people’s phobia list. Given how important communication is, particularly for those aiming for a top-flight career, giving our girls the opportunity to learn and practice speaking in public is important. Malvern St James participates in the English Speaking Union and Model United Nations, as well as Latin and Greek Reading Competitions and Poetry reading in competitive Arts Festivals. 

“Informally, girls are encouraged to present to their peer group in class, and to the full school community in Assembly. Girls from Prep upwards are involved in speaking at special school events. There is a School Debating Society and platforms such as School Council, being a Prefect or Head Girl, and being a House Prefect all give girls the opportunity to grasp the technique of speaking persuasively in public – definitely a skill for life.” 

Run by English teacher Mrs Chris Shepherd, Malvern St James’ weekly Debating and Public Speaking Society not only promises participants the opportunity to be outspoken and controversial, but also the prospect of chocolate biscuits and cake. It is open to student from Years 9, 10, 11 and Sixth Form, with a maximum group size of 10. Mrs Shepherd recommends public speaking for anyone who doesn’t usually speak in class. As she says, “Thinking is helped by your speaking.” 

Malvern St James student Sylfiana Wong agrees, saying, “I enjoy doing public speaking because we are allowed to put forward our point of view and our opinion on topics that I had never previously considered. Some topics are very controversial but we can tell the audience what we think and even persuade them. It helps you to think in a logical way and think really quickly. I have learnt a lot of new vocabulary and looked into topics that I didn’t really understand before. 

“In public speaking competitions, you can be the chair, the questioner or the speaker. Each person plays an important role so it makes for better teamwork and communication skills. It takes a great deal of courage to stand in front of lots of people you don’t know and it has definitely helped me a lot with presentations and oral exams.”  

Reciting poetry also increases confidence and hones articulation and presentation skills. At Warwick School, all boys have to learn a poem as part of the elocution competitions that take place in the first two years of the school. 

At Beaudesert Park every spring, the school stages a Declamations competition. Every child from Year 3 (aged seven to eight) upwards is able to pick a piece of prose or a poem, which they learn by heart and then recite in front of an audience. Judging takes place within classes and year groups before the finalists recite their chosen piece in front of parents, peers, staff and an external judge. 

There are more formal qualifications, too. Charlotte Crosbee, who teaches Speech, Drama, LAMDA (the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art) and Dance at Beaudesert Park School, explains, “As well as examinations accredited by LAMDA – including solo and duologue acting – speaking in public and the speaking of verse and prose, we also offer English Speaking Board (ESB) qualifications. For this exam, pupils must prepare and give a speech, perform a poem from memory and read aloud to an audience. The assessment is done as a group, so that the children actively partake in each other’s exams as speakers and listeners. This gives a fantastic grounding for public speaking, building stage presence as well as promoting listening and conversational skills.”  

At Malvern College, The Lea Smith Reading Competition dates back to 1907 and is one of the oldest inter-House competitions at the school. Each year, pupils from all year groups and Houses compete by reading aloud a literary passage of their choice. On National Poetry Day, pupils can choose a poem to read aloud (often with a megaphone!) and external poetry competitions form a platform for many students to showcase their recital skills. 

Many pupils at The Cotswold School take part in public speaking competitions, which start at Club level in school and then progress externally. Sabrina Torris, aged 14, recently won FameLab Academy at the Gloucestershire Finals, a public speaking competition for Science communicators. Run by Cheltenham Science Festival, it is now the largest competition of its kind. She believes strongly in the power of public speaking, saying, “I fully believe that it is a skill that every student should try to nurture. It will be useful in all walks of life, especially in future interviews. It is so important to have the self-confidence to be able to address large numbers of people and also to be able to respond appropriately to their reactions. 

“I also think it makes people more sociable and they find it easier to talk to new people. The art of conversation seems to be disappearing more and more nowadays and it’s being replaced by countless abbreviations and grammatically incorrect sentences. Texting/social media can never prepare you for real interaction with people, whilst public speaking most
certainly can.” 

Congratulations additionally go to Malvern St James pupil Flora Barber, in Year 12, who recently won her age category in the BBC Hereford and Worcester Poetry Writing Competition, which led to her reading on-air her poem Home.

As pupils at Warwick School approach the GCSE years, all the boys have to learn a speech to deliver to their class on a moral or ethical issue. This ties in with the PSHE curriculum and allows all the pupils to develop their confidence whilst learning about issues on which they feel passionate. Recent winners have included those who spoke about recycling, child slavery and abortion in Northern Ireland. By doing these sort of activities regularly enough, the boys soon learn to manage any lingering nerves. 

At The Cotswold School, the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) is encouraged at Sixth Form and is highly regarded by universities as it has a presentation element, giving the scholar the opportunity to present on their specialist subject and take part in a Q&A. The school is now also running Mini-EPQs for Year 8s – again, an exercise that requires some in-depth research followed by an element of public speaking in order to present to Governors and visitors.

Georgina Hildick-Smith, who is in charge of Public Speaking at Dean Close School, sums up the importance of public speaking when she says, “Although it has always been an important skill, it is probable that with the increase in virtual interaction and communication that the opportunity for pupils to do this, especially outside the classroom, is much less now. The demise of the dinner table conversation with family and friends has a knock-on effect, both in terms of the ability to converse but also the lack of awareness of issues and the wider world which all make for good public speaking/debating skills. 

“It is a skill to construct and maintain an argument in a time when most arguments, online and in the media, are bite sized: this is something more extensive. Research is required, which is another valuable skill. Speakers must be able to answer questions, showing how well they can think on their feet and engage with the questioner.” 

All the schools included in this feature agree that students should be encouraged to practice public speaking from an early age, even if it is just in front of their peers in the classroom, because the confidence gained spills over into so many other aspects of learning and life.  

So, what tips can be gleaned for successful public speaking? 14 year old Sabrina Torris, a pupil at The Cotswold School, has the following advice: “A good orator definitely is full of enthusiasm and charisma. They have to change their tone frequently to keep their audience engaged and have to have good intonation. Their subject matter has to be compelling – the audience has to be able relate to and have an interest in what they are trying to say. The orator has to be able to create a connection with their audience: they have to be able to evoke feeling, stimulate thoughts...their audience should be completely focused on what they are saying. They need to carry their audience with them and take them on a journey. They should also hold a confident stance and shouldn’t be afraid to make proper eye contact with the audience. They have to be quite ’fresh’ and original, making them stand out from the ordinary and be memorable. A good opening line (hook) and ending line (sinker) is essential as well. Both have to be punchy – you want to make the audience sit up in surprise and listen to what you’re going to say.”

The current student leadership team at Burford School – George Genc, Elspeth Martin, Maggie Boyd and Orlando Ross – provide the following ‘top tips’ for any student starting out in
public speaking:

  1. It gets better the more of it you do, so don’t be put off if it doesn’t go well the first time.
  2. 2If you’re making a speech, speak more slowly than you ever thought possible – you’ll still be speaking much faster than you think!
  3. Remember to look up and make eye contact with the audience.
  4. Have a glass of water to hand.
  5. If you can, it helps to talk about something that really interests you.
  6. Your intonation and facial expressions can help engage an audience, but avoid gurning! 
  7. You’ll probably find that speaking to small audiences can be scarier than speaking to large ones, because it’s much more personal.

Contact details:

Beaudesert Park School: 01453 832072 / GL6 9AF / beaudesert.gloucs.sch.uk
Burford School:  01993 823303 / OX18 4PL / burford.oxon.sch.uk
The Cotswold School: 01451 820554 / GL54 2BD / cotswold.gloucs.sch.uk
The Cheltenham Ladies’ College: 01242 520691 / GL50 3EP / cheltladiescollege.org
Dean Close School: 01242 258000 / GL51 6HE / deanclose.org.uk
Malvern College: 01684 581500 / WR14 3DF / malverncollege.org.uk
Malvern St James: 01684 892288 / WR14 3BA / malvernstjames.co.uk
Warwick School: 01926 776400 / CV34 6PP / warwickschool.org

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