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Why the dread we feel about public speaking is good

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Staff

JANUARY 19, 2023

Like every aspiring attorney who needs to complete a lackluster college application, I was a member of my high school’s debate team and participated in an event called parliamentary debate. 

Unlike the typical one-on-one, Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em debate format, parliamentary debate is between two teams of two debating each other with 20 minutes of preparation and no knowledge of the prompt before the tournament began. This impromptu format tested students’ ability to think on their feet while defending an onslaught of fresh and original arguments. For high school students who did not want to prepare debate cases and essays of evidence, parliamentary debate was perfect.

The day before a tournament in 10th grade, I was nervous. In previous competitions, I relied on recycled debate cases for well-known prompts that generations of high school students before me used to win their competitions. This time, I had to rely on my previous knowledge of the prompt and whatever hastily assembled argument was written down in 20 minutes. 

I was lucky enough to have an ingenious debate partner who was brilliant in all science-related subjects and would eventually be admitted into the University of Pennsylvania. Yet, the anxiety of performing well in the tournament to win both recognition for the school and a glowing extracurricular activity to put on my college application kept me up that night. 

On the day of the tournament, my partner and I arrived at the tournament an hour late because we simply couldn’t locate each other. I later realized the reason why my mom and I spent what felt like forever driving around town looking for my partner was because I accidentally had his number blocked. That chaotic hour now explains why I periodically check if I have someone’s number blocked during stressful situations. 

In a desperate sweat, my partner and I sprinted to our assigned tournament room. In the five remaining minutes before the round commenced, we jotted down a poor excuse for an argument about the media’s influence on elections. With the luck of only a few sentences in the back of my mind, I began my first parliamentary debate round. 

The debate felt like driving in a heavy rainstorm with a sprained ankle — doable but excruciating. By the time I had to give the closing speech, our unsupported arguments combined with a lack of prior knowledge of the prompt left us flailing in the wind.

I began a closing speech that needed to reaffirm our argument’s strength and do last-minute rebuttals, but I realized that everything we argued was debunked by our opponents. Regardless, I helplessly tried invalidating their arguments, which provoked the opposing team to stand up and object to unfairly introducing new rebuttals in the last round.

Later, I found out that I was well within the rules of the debate, but in those moments, numerous interruptions disorientated me and made me lose my already-derailed train of thought. My lips quivered and my knees trembled as everyone in the room watched me scrambling to change my argument on the spot. I rambled and murmured some sentences nobody could follow, and it dawned on me that everyone was looking at my pants zipper, which was afraid of heights, instead of me.

I awkwardly stopped speaking to zip up my pants and wipe a deluge of sweat soaking my paper. The closing argument was supposed to be eight minutes long, but I was espousing inadequate and directionless statements after three minutes. After a few more nauseating minutes, I sat down, stared at the floor and waited for the remaining time to end.

Obviously, we lost. I felt overwhelming anxiety and embarrassment immediately following the debate round. I wanted nothing more than to blast Lionel Richie on the way home.

However, I took what happened as a learning experience. I reminded myself that I joined the debate team to prepare myself for lawyering and that I will have numerous more similar experiences if I do not improve. So, I began reciting speeches in front of the bathroom mirror, volunteered more at my church’s readings and signed up for more tournaments. 

The nerves and the involuntary convulsions before a speech never go away. Countless simulations run in my head of everything that can go wrong, and the anxiety to outperform the previous speech relentlessly remains. Yet, everything melts away when I begin speaking in the microphone, and my focus shifts to the speech itself and not on my buckling knees or rapid heartbeat. 

Although it’s notoriously avoided, public speaking is a grueling necessity for most professions because communication is the cornerstone of leadership. Our society is hyperconnected, and our words and their delivery can make a difference in a multitude of areas in our lives. 

There are still many more things that I have to improve on for public speaking, whether through more embarrassment or practice. Perhaps, all we need is a memory of a terrible first public speaking experience embedded into our minds just so it makes the dread of it all that much more driving.

Contact Ethan Kim at 

LAST UPDATED

JANUARY 19, 2023