Secrets of school debating success

Dozens of James McGovern’s students went on to become national public speaking and debating champions. So, how did they do it?

James McGovern, a recently retired teacher who led his school to win a record haul of awards for public speaking competitions. Photograph: Patrick Browne

James McGovern, a recently retired teacher who led his school to win a record haul of awards for public speaking competitions. Photograph: Patrick Browne


As a young teacher in CBS Enniscorthy in the mid-1980s, I took over the coaching of the public speaking and debating teams as an extracurricular activity, a commitment which lasted until my retirement last year.

My initial interest arose from a combination of my own dread of public speaking as a student and a desire to help as many students as possible overcome their fears and become accomplished orators.

My first experiences of school debating as a student in St Mel’s College, Longford, were nerve-wracking. They only helped to prove how self-conscious and lacking in confidence I was at the time.

With hindsight, this was hardly surprising given how regimented and strict life in boarding schools was in those days.

Later, while studying in Rome, I came across an old copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Develop Self Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking. It was to later become one of my main influences.

I realised that with the right approach, preparation and purposeful practice, public speaking and debating could overcome fear and increase self-confidence exponentially.

Tutoring students in public speaking and debating was always about more than the successes in competitions, though they were quite gratifying, of course.

It was about the pursuit of excellence and being the very best that you could be, in the process building the self-confidence and self-esteem of the student.

It was about bringing hidden talents to the fore, as some skills are just dormant and need to be activated and nourished.

And there was, of course, great personal satisfaction in seeing a student flourish in this area and particularly when a parent would mention how astonished they were at their son’s transformation.

And while we all enjoyed the successes in competition, losing competitions made me work even harder, getting feedback as to how we could improve, fine-tuning our approach, content and delivery, introducing new strategies and practising until the students were confident and au fait with every aspect of the competition.

It was a wonderful journey that simply flew by and I know from many students that they, by and large, enjoyed their parts of the journey too.

1. Read the greats

Over the years, I studied many of the great orators, ranging from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the more modern speeches of the likes of Charles Stewart Parnell, Martin Luther King and Mary Robinson.

After Carnegie, my greatest influences were Abraham Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address I used as a template for my students to cut their teeth on, and Cicero, arguably the greatest speaker of all time. He was said to quell rebellions by his speech alone!

I found Cicero’s Five Canons of Rhetoric to be as applicable and useful today as they were in ancient Rome and I often referred to them to illustrate and confirm what we were already doing in practice.

2. Separate the wheat from the chaff

When we got a topic or motion, the first thing was the generation of ideas.

We brainstormed to see what ideas we already had and only then went researching experts’ ideas and views. We collected a huge amount of information and then had to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

This involved deciding on an approach, narrowing down our information to relevant points and putting them in best order.

3. Create a connection with the audience

Of crucial importance was how best to create a connection, or empathy, with the audience which would catch and hold their attention.

The basic layout had a gripping introduction, maybe a quotation or a shocking statement, followed by the main body of the speech consisting of clear, concise information completed by a memorable conclusion such as a call to action or a dramatic summarising quote.

Our general motto was: tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you’ve told them.

4. Keep some linguistic tricks in your locker

Of course, all this had to be done with a bit of panache.

We chose our words carefully to express our ideas in a clear, memorable and unbiased manner.

Diction had to be clear, simple and understandable. We used repetition, figurative language and metaphors where appropriate to reinforce our ideas and connection with the audience.

5. Teamwork

This was very important. Each speaker on the two- or three-person team made reference to the other team members’ speeches. It showed that the team was a unit – and also kept the audience focused on our overall arguments.

6. Look the part

Style went beyond the actual speech. It was one thing speaking well but it was important to look well too.

Good grooming and spotless, neat attire was, of course, de rigueur, but we saw early on that the elite schools wore crested blazers and thought they set them apart. So, we got some too and used them, particularly in the latter stages of competitions, in order to look the part.

7. Know your speeches

I firmly believe that a speaker should know his speech. The speech should come from the speaker’s mind and heart and not simply be read to an audience. Therefore, the team members rehearsed their speeches until they knew them thoroughly.

That took a lot of purposeful practice, often in after-school, weekend or holiday team coaching sessions, often in a room on their own at home or in school and as often as possible in front of others to get feedback, which is the breakfast of champions!

On the evening of a competition, the audience would hear many speakers so it was important that they too would remember our speeches, so sometimes we used visual props to enhance the speech and make it more memorable for the audience.

8. It’s not just what you say – it’s how you say it

The whole process came together in the delivery of the speech to the audience. The speech was by now one which had been researched, written and memorised. It needed to be delivered just right, with appropriate pauses and nuances built in to ensure clarity of meaning, and connection or empathy with the audience.

We were ever conscious of the old slogan, “it’s not just what you say but how you say it”, and that the speech had to be convincing and persuasive but sound natural and conversational.

Non-verbal elements of delivery are also important such as appearance, eye contact and posture. Not standing behind a podium gave a greater connection with the audience.

9. Leave no stone unturned

Where possible, we visited venues beforehand to become familiar with the surroundings and the acoustics. This gave the speakers an opportunity to practise pitch and appropriate gesturing.

Overall, our preparation may have paid more than a nod to Cicero’s canons – which he called invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery – but it was an organic process that grew and developed over the years as we learnt from past experiences and built on them.

The secret of successful public speaking and debating tutoring is mostly about thoroughness and hard work and that win or lose in competition, students who take part improve in confidence and resilience, and develop skills which stand to them all their lives.

As the famous tennis player Arthur Ashe once said: “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

James McGovern is a former secondary teacher at St Mary’s CBS in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

He is the author of Stand Up, Speak Out: Memoir of a Public Speaking and Debating Tutor, published by Three Sisters Press