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26 January 2011
The Art of Debating and Public Speaking:

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Speak for success....


Giving a speech in a competitive environment is different to giving one at a wedding reception, in a business presentation or at school or university. The skills to learn are very similar, but the circumstances require a different attitude. Often competitive public speakers are reluctant to give speeches in other circumstances for this very reason. The guidelines in this section are written to help you make the most out of the competition, but remember that they are guidelines which are useful in virtually any form of public speech. Reading the adjudication guidelines as well will help you to tailor your speech to the requirements of this competition.

While each type of public speech has different aims, we can still identify common purposes. In general, a public speech should seek to





Consider the types of public speech that you have encountered in the past and try to identify their purposes. Teachers seek to inspire and entertain for the purpose of informing their students. Politicians seek to inform people of their policies and persuade them that these policies should be adopted. Campaigners often need to persuade their audiences that their position is right to inspire their audiences to support their cause.

The most compelling and powerful public speeches do all four. For example, a politician could seek to persuade their audience by presenting lies, but the persuasiveness of that speech disappears once those lies are revealed. A speech that not only persuades, but accurately informs is far more likely to have an enduring impact on the audience.


Credibility is fundamental to public speaking. Having credibility doesn't have to mean being the most qualified or knowledgeable, but it does mean making good, valid and preferably strong arguments.

Valid arguments are judged on their soundness, but not necessarily their truth. So you don't need to prove your argument is true, just that it is sound. Good arguments make logical sense. They do not make assumptions or miss out key points. Strong arguments are both valid and good, and have the added bonus of being highly likely. This makes them easier to believe, and easier to be persuaded by. If you have a choice between a good argument with weak justifications (hard to understand or easy to disagree with) and one with strong justifications (easy to understand and hard to disagree with) - choose the strong argument!

Remember that your audience, including the judges, may not have detailed knowledge of your topic. A credible speech will not blind the audience with facts or assertions. If you want to use technical terms or complex facts, take time to explain them, and make sure they are relevant to your argument.

Building a strong, good and valid argument will give your speech credibility with an audience who neither knows you nor the details of your subject.

Choosing a topic

You are restricted by the theme of the competition, but may interpret it in any way you wish within the guidelines.

Will my topic capture the audience's interest?

Your audience does not necessarily need to be interested in your subject before the speech. Indeed, most speeches that set out to inform will be on things that people know very little about, but the subject should capture their imagination. As your speech is only a maximum of five minutes, think about the ways in which interest can be captured within a few sentences.

Does it have obvious parallels with something that they do know about? The stock market may seem like an impenetrable topic for discussion, until you consider how similar it is to gambling. Does it affect their lives, even if they don't realise it? Allocation of government resources could be linked with the availability of teachers or hospital beds.

Are there links between this topic and areas that an audience may already have an interest in? Intellectual property rights seem like a mundane topic until you consider that intellectual property rights are breached every time a song or a movie is downloaded illegally.

Am I interested in the topic?

Somewhat unsurprisingly, an effective prepared speech requires a significant amount of time in preparation!

We suggest that you talk to your teachers, parents and mentors about your choice of topic. This will help you find an area that you find interesting, but may not necessarily have existing knowledge of. Selecting a topic that you have an interest in means you will be more motivated when researching and composing it, and will therefore produce a better speech. Enthusiasm is an incredibly difficult thing to fake! On the other hand, if you already know a lot of detailed information, you may be tempted to show your depth of knowledge to the detriment of the structure of the speech. Picking a subject to speak on that is new to you will help you to produce a well-researched, interesting and engaging speech.

Am I able to research my topic effectively?

You will need to use information in your speech to inform and persuade your audience. Use a range of sources, which can include the internet, school or local libraries, interviews or personal experiences. Refer to them in your speech so the adjudicators know you have a broad base for your arguments.

The questions that follow your speech are designed to test your knowledge and understanding of your chosen topic. Therefore, you should have carried out sufficient research to be able to answer questions relating to the subject matter of your speech.

Can I properly discuss my chosen topic in the limited time I have available?

Some topics are unfamiliar to audiences and may require considerable amounts of background information simply to give context to your speech.

For example, it is probably impossible to reasonably convince people that "The Meiji Restoration in Japan was unfair on the daimyos" if you have to begin your talk with a description of the state of Japan before the Restoration, then tell us what the Restoration changed, tell us what a daimyo is, and then present analysis of your previous descriptions to show how the daimyos suffered wrongly as a result of the Restoration, all in five minutes!

If you need to give background information or explain technical terms make sure they do not take up any more than a few simple sentences. If they do, consider refining your topic.

Interpreting the theme

You are not allowed to use the theme as your title. The theme is quite broad and deliberately does not suggest a specific subject area.

Stick to the guidelines above about manageable topics that you are interested in. Don't try to second guess what the 'intention' was behind the choice of theme, and do not pick something that you feel you ought to talk about in preference to something you really want to talk about. Also remember that adjudicators will be hearing a lot of speeches in succession, so interpreting the theme in a creative way will result in a more original speech that will stand out in the adjudicators' mind.

Inform, entertain, persuade, inspire

Above we discussed the purposes of a speech and saw how those purposes establish credibility. In this competition you have a limited period of time to deliver your speech, aiming simply to inform or entertain the audience will probably not enable you to fully demonstrate your public speaking skills. You should aim to use your speech to persuade your audience of your assertion, or to inspire them to take a certain action.

Statement of intent

'If you can't write your speech in a sentence, you can't say it in an hour'

Remember that writing a speech is different to writing an essay. You don't have the opportunity to go back and reread sentences or pause to consider a complex statement. Clarity is crucial to effective delivery. To ensure that your speech remains clear, try to draw up what you believe will be the core of the speech; a few sentences that explain the purpose of the speech and its main points.

Complete the following sentence: "At the end of my speech I want to have convinced the audience that... "

Give yourself a specific target. For example, rather than saying "At the end of my speech I want to have convinced the audience that global poverty is bad", say "At the end of my speech I want to have convinced my audience that global poverty is bad, there are ways in which the audience can address it, and that they have a responsibility to do so". This is your statement of intent.

You do not have to include the statement of intent in your speech, but having one allows you to tie your main points to what your speech sets out to achieve. By way of example, find a public speech that you find appealing and one that you find unappealing or confusing. Try to write a statement of intent for each. The speech for which you find it easier to identify a core aim, will be the speech you find more appealing.

Supporting your statement of intent

Each clause in your statement of intent is a claim that needs to be identified and then supported. Looking at the example, we can see there are three claims:

"global poverty is an important issue", "the audience can take action to alleviate it", and "the audience has a responsibility to do so"

Research evidence to support each of these claims to make your speech a valid and good argument. You need to explain how your evidence supports what you are saying, this will helps to make it a strong argument.

Conflicting evidence and opinions

Interesting speeches often make claims that are controversial. In the course of your research, you will discover information surrounding your topic that does not support your conclusion and opinions that differ from your own. Don't ignore these!

Take time in your speech to acknowledge, explore and recognise other points of view, before comparing them carefully with your own evidence and reasons to come to a balanced conclusion. That is much more effective as a method of persuasion because it creates more credibility for you. When persuading the audience to adopt a particular point of view, think about the ways in which your arguments might be opposed, and try to incorporate the response to those arguments in your speech. After all, an audience is more likely to be persuaded by someone who understands the alternatives and can justify their position, than by someone who only knows or understands one view.

Audiences aren't passive; they think about and question the material that you present, and are more likely to be persuaded by arguments that you have tested, and subsequently strengthened.

Methods of illustration

There are all sorts of pieces of evidence that could support your claim, not just what you might think of as 'facts'.

Common sense beliefs or idiom - if you can connect the idea that you are trying to communicate to a belief that is deeply held by the audience, then it is likely to persuade them;

Narrative - simple stories can often communicate complex ideas by way of metaphor;

Humour can also be effective - getting the audience to laugh at an idea makes it easy to then convince them that the idea is wrong.

Try to remember the ways by which you have been convinced in the past to change your view, or become interested in an issue, and use those techniques in your speech to connect with the audience.

Think of evidence as illustration in the most literal sense - shedding light on the issue, illuminating your ideas and making them easily understood by the audience. However, always remember to show how your evidence is relevant and how it supports what you are saying.

Researching your topic

Researching your topic is essential. Even if you have prior knowledge of your chosen topic, you will need to broaden your perspective on the issue, considering a broader range of sources and alternative perspectives. When researching your topic, you should be mindful of the following points:

You should consider different types of sources, such as fact-based sources (e.g. encyclopaedias), opinion-based sources (e.g. newspapers) and academic sources (e.g. journals)

You should also aim to ensure that you have the most up-to-date information on your topic. The internet can be very useful for this (e.g. Google).

Where statistics are employed as evidence, you should aim to have two or more sources to support your argument. You do not need to quote these sources, but you should be aware of them, particularly for questions.

Anecdotal evidence (e.g. personal stories, myths and memories) should never be the primary source supporting your arguments, but may be a very effective way to demonstrate the human elements of your speech and inspire passion or empathy in the audience. Anecdotal evidence is also, very often, entertaining.


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