You’ll be familiar, I’m sure, with the adage: ‘The Three Rs’ – Reading, (w)Riting & (a)Rithmetic. Education traditionalists have been banging on about their importance for as long as I can remember.
Perhaps this explains why in my very traditional junior school, I spent so much time learning to not split infinitives as well as nuancing the distinction between a gerund and a gerundive.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting these (silent) skills aren’t important. Of course they are. The covering letter and CV that lands on an employer’s desk, riddled with spelling pistakes is unlikely to progress very far. Equally, when drafting reports, letters, articles and perhaps even emails, poor grammar and spelling stands out a mile.
But irrespective of one’s view of the Three Rs (or RWA), there’s an unforgivable omission. One which reflects the education establishment’s woeful misreading of what really counts when it comes to employment… and life more broadly.
I’m speaking, of course… of ‘Speaking’.
Recently, the Times Educational Supplement published an excellent article on the subject, quoting Headteacher Peter Hyman as saying ‘speaking skills are now a moral issue’.
Indeed they are. I couldn’t agree more.
I spent four years as an Associate of Speakers Trust – a charity which, among other things, delivers The Jack Petchey Speak Out! Challenge: a grant-funded public speaking workshop programme made available (free!) to Year 10s in state secondary schools across London and Essex. That’s more than 400 schools in all.
The take-up was tremendous – and my own experience working on public speaking skills with thousands of teenagers was… fabulous. At times funny, challenging, exhausting, inspiring, invigorating… all in all, emotional! [Note: the author is well aware there's no verb in the preceding sentence. Tough.]
Yet a small minority of schools still turned down the offer of the free workshop! This, despite overwhelming evidence that participants would develop invaluable life skills in terms of confidence, self-esteem, clarity of thought, group rapport, leadership and all-round personal impact.
My wife teaches at a Lambeth Sixth Form college and comments that for many entrants, past participation in the Speak Out Challenge! was the proudest moment of their school career.
Nor is public speaking in schools just about achievement. Granted, many students won’t be seeking to leap up on a stage and address large audiences for the rest of their life. But they’ll go out on a date! (where impromptu speaking skills become ‘rather important’). They’ll interview for a job! (where the ability to answer a question clearly and concisely becomes ‘rather important’). They may speak at a wedding, funeral or birthday! (where the the ability to structure a short, appropriate speech becomes ‘rather important’).
So many people dismiss ‘public speaking’ as if it’s some sort of niche skill… or horrifying… or both. But the simple truth is that 99% of us speak ‘in public’ every day of our lives - in meetings… at parties… round the water-cooler… We may not perceive this as ‘public speaking’. But it is.
Anyway, back to the schools – why turn the opportunity down? All too often because the school felt they ‘couldn’t afford for the students to be out of lessons for the day’. Seriously?
To date, my career spans corporate executive headhunting, work in Parliament, grass-roots campaigning and in brand strategy consulting in London’s West End, not to mention nearly six years training 35,000+ people across 42 cities, from Osaka to Islamabad. I’ve had the privilege to speak in charities, police stations, hotels, FTSE 100 corporate headquarters, a prison, youth clubs, community centres and more than eighty schools, not to mention some of the best universities in the land.
If that combined experience has taught me one thing, it’s this:
A person’s ability to engage others through the spoken word decisively influences their capacity to succeed in this world.
You may be negotiating a deal, pitching for business, at interview, on a date, at a wedding, making a complaint, seeking to motivate a team, directing a play, teaching a lesson, offering advice to others or trying to talk someone down off a bridge.
Yet last year, the Government scrapped ‘Speaking & Listening’ as an assessment for GCSE English.
In the long-run, the students will be poorer for it.
So, speak! Soon.
Simon Bucknall, Twice UK & Ireland Champion of Public Speaking.
Simon regularly delivers Head of Year keynote talks and workshops in secondary schools, helping students achieve greater confidence when speaking under pressure. For details, click here.