Speaking Out about Public Speaking

September 28, 2012
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Nancy Wade

Most high school students would recognize the plea of “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” as those immortal words from Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar. When the character of Marc Antony speaks out, he uses the power of rhetoric that so distinguished educated leaders of that era. So connected were the idea of discourse in a public forum to the idea of public advocacy and justice in the courts, that the Latin word forum ultimately gave rise to the term forensics, which today can mean both evidence used in courtrooms and, alternately, a variety of public-speaking genres.

Today’s students no longer need to travel to the stone steps of a public forum to make their voices heard. Technology now allows them to make public statements from the confines of their own bedrooms. And with tools such as Skype, iChat, videoconferencing and YouTube, students are delivering their messages to increasingly larger audiences than ever before.

The irony of this development is that, as the opportunities for students to voice their ideas have escalated dramatically during the 21st century, public speaking programs in many schools have diminished drastically.

The ancient Romans and Greeks understood that public speaking was a powerful communication tool for effective leadership, motivation, influence and persuasion. At the highest points in these venerated civilizations, the finest education available included the study of rhetoric, which meant the composing and delivery of speeches. In fact, the Roman scholar Cicero refined the concept even further, espousing that a good public speaker required more than knowledge of his topic; he needed ethos, wit and the ability to keep his audience entertained.

Throughout the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, public speaking, known as oratory, remained an integral part of a liberal arts education. After a decline in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was renewed interest in the art of public discourse during the 19th century. This revival made the art of oratory an increasingly important part of the curriculum in schools in the late 1800s. As a result, oratorical competitions became de rigueur in colleges, high schools and elementary schools across the land as educational institutions celebrated and promoted the forensics arts.

Letter: Slow Down And Really Enjoy The River

The value placed on oratory was evidenced at institutions of higher learning across our nation. Princeton University held numerous speech competitions, especially ones associated with patriotic events such as Washington’s birthday or other historic remembrances. At Harvard, oratory was a required and popular part of the curriculum for many years. One’s education was simply considered incomplete without it. The popularity of oratorical contests was noted in the New York Evening Post in February 1895 when an article on the subject stated that at the University of Indiana, “oratory was more popular than sports.”

The 20th century emphasis on science and technology created an American culture that became less willing to finance programs in public speaking, and the word “oratory” became part of our past, an old-fashioned term for a truly lost art. While many schools today no longer fund oratory as a curriculum area, a good number of schools continue to validate those critical public speaking skills through extracurricular activities.

Forensics programs in some schools, for example, foster the growth of public speaking skills through interscholastic competitions. With the challenging budgets facing most schools today, these types of activities, if they exist at all, tend to be relegated to our high schools, leaving most elementary school students without formal training in public speaking until they reach the upper grades.

Teachers in elementary and middle school often work hard to include public-speaking opportunities for students in their classrooms, but the classical emphasis on oratory as an integral part of the educational process has  become a thing of the past in most elementary schools.

Letter: Slow Down And Really Enjoy The River

The incongruity of this fact is obvious when we observe how many elementary and middle school students are expressing their opinions, thoughts and feelings on the Internet.  With so many new digital platforms at their fingertips, students now have the power to have their voices heard around the world, and many educators will, hopefully, re-examine priorities regarding curriculum in the 21st century.

Students today more than ever before in history need the rhetorical skills that were once held in such high esteem in the classroom. Those 19th-century theories of elocution taught critical rhetorical skills that allowed students to form arguments and defend them, delivery skills like articulation and pacing, non-verbal communication skills like use of hands, eyes, and facial expressions, and, most of all, the ability to connect with one’s audience through ethos.

We have given our students the tools needed to talk to others around the world through technology. Creating a curriculum for “digital” oratory would now help students develop the forensics skills they need to use these new platforms to their best ability.

If Shakespeare were writing Julius Caesar today, he might very well have said, “Friends, Romans, citizens of the world, lend me your ears.” Students in the 21st century are part of the global classroom and teaching them how to express their thoughts effectively through public speaking programs is now, more than ever before, part of our charge as their mentors.


Nancy Wade teaches the award-winning forensics program at Ranney School in Tinton Falls. Since its inception in 1994, the Ranney Middle School Forensics Team has garnered 338 awards at various forensic competitions and venues throughout New Jersey; 116 of these award winners took first place in their category.

If you liked this story, you’ll love our newspaper. Click here to subscribe

You may also like