Local students tackle ‘country’s greatest fear’: First-place Stoneleigh-Burnham debate team offers tips on public speaking

Last modified: 12/21/2015 11:03:39 AM
GREENFIELD — For many, public speaking is a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in something they desperately want to avoid, to misappropriate Winston Churchill. For the Stoneleigh-Burnham School’s Debate and Public Speaking Society, it’s an extracurricular activity, and one they’re having a particularly good year with.

“The reality is it’s the number-one fear in the country, followed by heights, and number three is death, so there are actually people in this country who would prefer to be in the coffin than giving the eulogy,” said Paul Bassett, head coach of the Greenfield all-girls’ private school’s team.

Clara Swartzentruber, Claire Lane and Charlotte Minsky, all seniors and Greenfield residents, placed first as a team at the four-day International Independent Schools Public Speaking Competition in Toronto last month. The three are among about 36 society members, out of an enrollment of about 140.

For Lane, who Bassett said is also the school’s top dancer, experience takes the edge off.

“I’ve been a performer since I was little, so I still get nervous when I publicly speak, I still get butterflies and I sweat like anybody would, but I think it’s about taking risks and just having the courage to confront your own fear,” Lane said.

Minsky talks in terms of excitement, rather than fear.

“When I’m excited for a tournament ... I’m not excited to compete or perform, I’m excited to talk about things that I’m interested in and to become people that I’m not and to just have that experience,” she said.

In a recent competition, Minsky delivered a monologue as Joan of Arc, and Lane as Marie Antoinette.

Through the Toronto competition and another held in early October at the Bernardston Road school, where Swartzentruber won Top Speaker, she and Lane have earned seats in the U.S. delegation to the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championship in March in Pittsburgh.

There, they will each compete over five days in four events: debate, impromptu speaking, persuasive or after-dinner speaking and interpretive reading.

Lane is a veteran there, having competed in the international English-language debate and public speaking tournament this spring in Hong Kong, where she was the only U.S. student among 12 finalists in the interpretive reading category.

Bassett said Minsky is particularly expert in extemporaneous speaking, in which competitors are given a topic and just two minutes to prepare a speech, and has placed highly in recent years.

Minsky said she tries to think of the most fun she and the audience can have with the topic, which can be something as generic as the phrase “as American as apple pie.”

Bassett said the most brilliant thing he has seen Minsky do was the time she was given the five-paragraph essay as a topic, and attacked the common compositional construction. “She just absolutely trashed it, in five-paragraph essay form,” he said.

Minsky said Bassett, or PB as his students call him, gives them what they call “pockets of knowledge” — diverse pieces of information to draw on in debate or discussion. A knowledge of philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes is good to have any time the role of government comes up, Lane supplies as a for-instance.

Between them, Lane, Minsky and Bassett supply some useful tips for America’s top fear. Keep hand movements minimal and don’t clasp them or put them in your pockets. “Nothing that closes you off or draws you into yourself,” Minsky said. Standing with your hands by your side may be your safest bet. Don’t pace, unless it’s deliberate and there’s a good reason. Use silence deliberately, Lane said; don’t insert “umms” or “likes,” take time to collect your thoughts deliberately, and look people in the eyes. Keep your hair out of your face. Another thing to avoid, Minsky said, is to either pronounce statements as questions or “come in for a landing,” ending low and soft, rather than speaking forcefully.

Lane said public speaking will usually involve some kind of prepared speech. In competition, that means finding or creating a text on a topic that resonates with you. Then memorize, memorize, memorize, Minsky said, “so that you can do it in your sleep, so that when you’re on the stage you can spend all of your mental energy freaking out about the fact that you’re public speaking and still be able to do your speech,” she said.

Bassett, a Turners Falls native and one-time head of school with a doctorate in education administration, said both his daughters graduated from the school, and he stayed on because debate and public speaking are his passion, and making voices heard is the school’s mission.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: 
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257


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