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Talking a Good Talk

Talking’s great. No really, it’s fab. It’s all the rage. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving as human beings, improving ways to more effectively communicate with each other and express ourselves in a meaningful way.

But now – it seems to me – the whole communication thing is, in some ways, devolving. Over the last twelve years I’ve been running creative writing workshops with young people, specialising in the tricky art of humour. I’ve visited over six hundred schools, all over the country, and the sessions often culminate in the pupils sharing their work with their peers by reading it out in front of the class. The proof of the pudding is in the reading. Y’know, if laughter occurs, it’s funny.

However, increasingly, when I ask for volunteers to read out their work, the body language of the entire class changes. Eyes are downcast, and the floor suddenly becomes hugely interesting. Ask an individual to stand up and read and they recoil like a salted slug. It’s only natural.

I understand that public speaking is not everyone’s cup of tea, indeed they say that most people’s biggest fears are public speaking and death – both of which, you can experience in one evening, if you get it wrong as a stand-up comedian. I should know. I can still recall – as a fledgling comic – the terrible soul-crushing feeling of dying on stage and willing a trapdoor to open suddenly and deliver me from the dry tongue horrors, hot sweats and the sound of my own footsteps. It still gives me the heebie-jeebies now, just thinking about it. But I got better simply by doing it again and again, until it became second nature, and the awful ‘run away’ nerves, slowly became ‘let-me-at-‘em’ nerves. Flight became fight, and it became enjoyable. I made a living at it.

Speaking is such a vital life skill which plays into all aspects of life, whether it’s giving a good account of yourself at a job interview, delivering an engaging presentation to colleagues who’d rather be elsewhere, or simply meeting folk at a party.

In schools, there definitely seems to be a drop-off in the frequency that children are required to speak in front of others, whether it is reading in class, sharing work, or a whole school assembly. And sadly, this happens at the worst possible time; secondary school – almost the precise moment when young people are beginning to develop a feeling of self-consciousness. Just at the time in their lives when a massive boost in confidence and self-esteem would be really helpful, a lot of students lose the knack of self expression merely through the lack of practise. Use it or lose it.

In recent years, I’ve been called upon to train and encourage young people in the art of public speaking. In the space of a few hours, they’ve gone on to deliver top-drawer speeches which have had the group by turn, in stitches and in tears.

I take it slowly, firstly by demonstrating how it’s done. Once I’ve made them laugh, allowing them to feel relaxed, confident and associate speaking with having a good time, I then move on to putting what I’m actually doing under the microscope. Beginning with baby steps, I get the students to move from speaking for a few moments to delivering a longer, more considered piece. The transition I see in them, in a short space of time is incredible; from being closed off and not really wanting to do it, to standing and delivering a personal, entertaining and well thought out monologue. Unsurprisingly, even though they have enjoyed the challenge, very few would say they now loved public speaking – that’s just human nature – but very few still think of it as scary, which is what I’m aiming for. One boy told me that when he speaks in front of people and they are engaged, it made him feel powerful. And that’s what young people want and deserve, right? Empowerment.

School by school, pupil by pupil, and with the support of some fine organisations which understand the huge importance of oracy, we can continue evolving.

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