x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Teen life: Baptism of impromptu fire for a green public speaker

It's strange that communicating our views formally to an audience can be so daunting for teenagers, considering how they chatter away on their phones.

According to studies, the list of people's greatest fears is topped by public speaking. Death figures at a measly number two. At the risk of exposing myself as someone who bothers to read and remember which "jokes" and pages people have thumbed up on Facebook, I recall some wit once observed that this means at a funeral most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

Well, that makes sense for teenagers. We are a social group that's notorious for chronic mumbling, not speaking up and non-committal shrugs. The closest we get to good communication is muttering "fine" when asked how our day at school was, "nothing" when faced with any question concerning what we did today and "out" to any demand that we explain where on earth we are going at this hour.

It was an illuminating experience, then, to attend a workshop conducted by Mrs Pushpa Vida, a national public speaking champion of Australia.

A few years ago, when I didn't even know that championships for public speaking existed, another Australian and former world champion, Mr Mark Hunter, delivered his winning monologue, A Sink Full of Green Tomatoes, to a spellbound Dubai audience in 2010, winning us over with a quirky sense of humour. He was wheelchair-bound, having lost his legs in a water-skiing accident, but, as he said with a shrug, he could make a wheelchair rear up and charge all over the place - it was great for adding drama to his speeches. I couldn't wait to hear out another champion.

Mrs Vida was only too happy to recount life lessons and impart tips on speaking, and it was all very enjoyable, too, before she decided to make it a little interactive. We paled. Interactive never spells good. Interactive, nine out of 10 times, heralds humiliation and doom. "We're going to do something called table topics," she smiled. "I give you a topic and you speak on it for two minutes. Simple enough?" Uh-huh.

She was looking directly at me. I was treated to another dazzling grin and heard, "The colour green. Go." And the button on the stopwatch clicked.

"The colour green," I repeated. What could you say about the colour green? "It's, uh, a colour." Everyone nodded expectantly. "That's ... representative of many, many things." I looked around. No one was sniggering. It was a start.

"So, um, leaves and plants are green. But," I was warming up to the topic, "it, er, inspires envy. You know, like, the green-eyed monster." Please, please, floor, just open up and swallow me now. I looked out of the window, which had a view of the golf course. "The golf course!" I blurted. All heads swivelled, startled, to look at the golf course, and eyes were trained back on me, huge with expectation. "It's, erm, green." Oh dear.

"Green is so ... multifaceted, it has so many, er, layers to it, it ceases to be a colour at all. It is, in fact ..." The stopwatch alarm trilled and I was saved from the effort of thinking up what the colour green was if it wasn't a colour. Hard work, this impromptu speaking lark.

Mrs Vida, happily, far from snorting in the disbelief that my rambling deserved, was all encouragement. Vani fared rather better, with a speech about fear, that flowed pretty well and ended, ironically, on how scared she was speaking to an audience. Cruz, 17, meanwhile talked about getting his pilot's licence and having completed his first solo flight at the age of 16.

This caused Emily and Rachael to sink their faces into their hands, sigh dreamily, wonder whether it wouldn't be nice if he could take them up in an airplane, and lapse into a prolonged fit of giggles until it was their turn to speak, at which point they subsided immediately.

It's strange to think that communicating our views formally to an audience can be so daunting for us teenagers. That is, of course, considering the lengths of time we spend chattering away on our phones, texting, chatting or making use of any other of the multitude of ways the 21st century has equipped us to ensure we can hear about how A complimented B on her hair as soon he does so.

Speaking skills, though, are as important today, if not more so, than they were in the time of George Bernard Shaw, when he wrote Pygmalion. Eliza, a poor flower girl, was passed off as a princess at a ball after she received phonetics lessons and dropped her working-class accent, easy as pie. Call that impressive, but I bet she didn't have to spout a two-minute monologue on the colour green.

The writer is a 16-year-old student in Dubai



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