Thayer Speech & Debate coach believes in the power of student voices
The problem with public speaking is that the speaking is so … well … so public.
But Upper School Math Faculty Justin Maloney, the head coach of Thayer’s Speech & Debate team, would like to talk to you about that.
“The number one fear in the world is glossophobia — the fear of public speaking — so to be able to do it with any degree of skill or prowess gives you an advantage over most people in the world,” says Maloney, who founded the team last spring. The squad now boasts roughly 20 team members during its “busy season” of fall and winter tournaments, but team size ebbs and flows. Maloney, a former practicing attorney with a law degree from Boston College Law School, is fine with that; he welcomes any and all, from the committed to the curious.
And, despite the fact that Thayer recently earned the Deborah E. Simon New School Award, given to the top-scoring new team in the Massachusetts Speech & Debate League, the team isn’t about accolades or ability, but exploration and experience.
“I don’t care if they win, lose, or draw,” Maloney says of his padawans of persuasion. “I do care that they have the opportunity to do it.”
If it sounds like Maloney is proselytizing, he most certainly is. First introduced to debate as a high school student — “plucked from obscurity” by a caring and attentive teacher is how he puts it — the young Maloney never looked back.
“I was obsessed with Speech & Debate as a kid, and it changed my life,” he says. “Everything that I’ve ever done in my life has been informed by my ability to speak with composure, clarity, and confidence.”
While most focus on the “debate” aspect of Speech & Debate, Maloney points out that tournaments have about 20 events in which students can showcase their rhetorical skills. There are Reading Events, which involve the use of a manuscript; these include Play Reading, Poetry Reading, and Children’s Literature. There are Public Address Events, which involve memorization; these include Declamation and Original Oratory. There are Interpretive Events, combining the creativity of Reading Events and the memorization of Public Address Events, like Dramatic Performance and Humorous Interpretation. And there are Limited Preparation Events, which can take the form of Extemporaneous Speaking — discussion of a topic with 30 minutes of prep time — or even Impromptu Speaking, in which the speaker chooses one topic from an envelope of three topic choices and then opines for a maximum of six minutes. If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is – and that’s the way Maloney likes it. He explains, “I never know where a kid will find her voice, so the more avenues for exploration, the better.”
Thayer’s debate bread-and-butter, Public Forum Debate, is a team of two students pitted against another team of two students where a “resolution,” aka the debate topic, is discussed. Prior to the debate, teams research and prepare two cases, both the pro and the con, to be ready for anything. This develops not only a deeper understanding of the topic at hand but an awareness of differing points of view.
“Debate is about making an argument that is both cogent and compelling,” says Maloney. “It’s the ability to disagree respectfully, an increasingly necessary and rare skill in today’s day and age.”
One popular misconception about public speaking, Maloney says, is that the “public” component must include a crowd of hundreds or even thousands. But the audience can be an audience of one, he says, so long as there’s a degree of difficulty, an element of sweaty palms, rapid heart rate, and the like.
“Public speaking isn’t about the size of the audience. It’s about speaking persuasively in an uncomfortable or pressure-filled situation — a place where you’re vulnerable” he says. “When you go to your boss and make the case that you deserve a raise, that’s public speaking.”
And being comfortable in those uncomfortable situations is one reason Maloney believes that untying one’s tongue offers a big leg up.
“Public speaking gives you the skills you need to change the world,” says Maloney, “and I promise you that it will change your world.”
The coach takes a breath, but only one.
“That’s my sales pitch,” he says.