In the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at the different genres of writing that you could get on AQA English Language Paper 2. We’ve covered articles and letters so far in the process, and today I’m looking at speeches.
So, another genre that’s a little contrived and a little out of most people’s comfort zone. Other than Best Man speeches at a wedding, few people actually get up and speak in front of other people once they’re out in the real world. Some of us may go on to do a lot of public speaking. Some of us may be in debating teams. Others may just fancy leading others into revolution and revolt. But there is a reason that public speaking is our greatest fear… and why so many people shy away from it.
In school, it’s a little different. Teachers like giving you a speech to prepare. Assemblies are one place you might get called on to speak, and you may well get a spoken project in class for one subject or another.
I don’t know about you – and no offence to anyone reading this – but many of the speeches I asked for at the beginning of my teaching career were duller than you could possibly imagine.
“Now, Year 7,” the younger version of me would say, “I’d like you to do a speech about one of your hobbies…”
Cue 15 talks about fishing, 5 about ponies, 3 about rabbits, 2 about rugby league rules and 1 about playing video games.
All of those talks were at least 30 minutes long and we spent the best part of April and May as a captive audience with me shushing anyone who dared whisper at the back.
And then there was invariably the Year 11 post-work experience talks. Cue 3 weeks of students talking about how many cups of tea they made and how they never, ever want to work in an office.
I got savvy after this. I copied good stuff on television and we did Room 101 speeches about things that bugged us. Year 8 did a magic trick and ran through the formal patter of magicians. I ran a thing called “It’s So Unfair!” based on the fiction of Jon Scieszka and we played the much-maligned characters from fairy stories. My favourite ever was one of my Year 11s doing a retelling of The Grinch, written in perfect Dr Seuss rhyme. I got to dress up as an Ugly Sister and I didn’t have to listen to people talking about working in their mum’s estate agency.
What I wanted were the kind of socially-conscious kids who were passionate about social issues as I had been. But then I was a weird child and I’m pretty sure nobody feels as strongly as I felt about ethics at 14. I’d have loved to have ushered the Next Great Speaker into the world by way of listening to Churchill, Shakespeare’s Henry V, Martin Luther King and such like, but it never happened.
But exam boards still seem to cling on to the last, desperate hope that some of today’s yoof are more interested in local community centres than they are in the lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and so needs must.
You’re just going to have to prepare for being Teenage Me, and giving a rip-roaring speech to
a captive audience an audience of your peers about something that will bore the pants off them a recent hot topic.
Let’s talk, then, about the conventions and customs of public speaking, about the register and devices that most of them use, so that you can attempt to be more speechy in your writing tasks. Otherwise, without that speechiness, what you’re writing is just an essay, or the main body of an article, without the article-y bits.
Like articles and like letters, much of speechiness rests in your opening and ending. What you do there can show whether or not you have enough of a grasp about speeches to be ‘convincing’.
So what do AQA say you might do when writing your speech? Let’s start there.
As a minimum, you could include:
a simple address to an audience
a final address to an audience.
So, I’m not really seeing anything very speechy. You might find those features in articles or letters.
For more developed responses, you could include:
a clear address to an audience
effective/fluently linked sections to
rhetorical indicators that an audience is
being addressed throughout
a clear sign off e.g. ‘Thank you for
So some of it is about linking, just you’ll find in letters, leaflets and articles. Some is about stuff that you can do that shows awareness of a live audience. And the rest is those openings and endings.
Generally speaking, when we stand up to do a speech, someone else has introduced us. It’s customary to thank them for having you, for hosting you, for giving you a bit of a soapbox on which to stand. Like letters, polite – but not to the point of obnoxiousness. You’ve got to get the tone and content right. No shouty ranting, no matter how on board your audience is with your talk.
Forget those “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, or those “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” kind of openings that grab your reader right from the start. In real life, most speeches start with some fairly standard conventions.
One of those is the thank you to your audience and your hosts. You can thank them for taking the time to listen to you, for inviting you, for indulging you, for giving you time to speak. You can also nod your head to the occasion and event, if it’s mentioned in the task. You can explain why your host invited you to speak.
It’s also a really good idea to introduce yourself a little bit.
When you’ve done that, then you can build up to the persuasive bits or get your rhetorical devices in.
Let’s have a look at the November 2017 task:
‘Education is not just about which school you go to, or what qualifications you
gain; it is also about what you learn from your experiences outside of school.’
Write a speech for your school or college Leavers’ Day to explain what you think
makes a good education.
Great. Captive audience of wild-eyed Year 11s who just want to get out and indulge in whatever the Leavers’ Day traditions are, be they something innocuous like writing on everyone’s shirts, or something deeply childish like egging each other or throwing flour bombs. Half the schools I worked at had the police on call on Leavers’ Day… and you’ve got to give a speech to these foaming-mouthed teenagers who just want to let off a bit of steam before exams start??!
I’m guessing that it was anticipated you’d all have warm, emotional and inspirational assemblies with teary-eyed year 11s all wise, nostalgic and sentimental, happy to sit through ten minutes of you waffling about a good education.
So let’s imagine that scenario, shall we, rather than an irate headteacher who’s spent ten minutes reminding you all that if you egg anyone, your Prom privileges are forfeited and you won’t be welcome back in school except for your exams.
Before we start, I’d like to share with you one of my favourite assembly speeches, from Ja’mie, star of Summer Heights High.
A great example of some of the conventions of speeches, as well as some cringeworthy examples of how not to alienate your captive audience. Some dos and don’ts based on Ja’mie’s example:
- Do thank the people who asked you to speak
- You don’t need to thank absolutely everyone involved
- Do introduce yourself
- Don’t alienate your audience
- Do try to make yourself sound friendly and sincere
- Do speak directly to your audience and include things in your speech that make it clear that you’re trying to engage them
- Be polite
- Do use facts and statistics if they fit in
- Don’t wander off topic in an attempt to engage your audience
- Finish with a call to action and a polite imperative
- Don’t use ones that are rude about your listeners and definitely don’t talk to them as if they are stupid!
So how would I open and end my speech explaining my ideas about a good education in that fictional Leavers’ Assembly?
First, I’d thank the head teacher, who I guess would have introduced me. And then I’d thank the audience for listening. I’d introduce myself, even though they may already know who I am. I’m not going to try to be funny or smart, because I try that sometimes and I’m so bad at it. I have a student currently who is really, really good at it. If you can pull off a comical, satirical or humorous approach and it would be fitting for the occasion, audience and purpose, go for it.
Here’s my sample opening:
Thank you, Mr Burns, for your kind introduction and having chosen me to speak today. I’m sure you can all well imagine the terror of having to stand up and speak. It’s the ultimate revenge, I’m sure, for all those times we misbehaved in class or made it difficult for our teachers to actually do their job. It is, of course, an honour, not a punishment, to be speaking to you all today on this most auspicious occasion: what may be, for some of us, our final day in school. Certainly, our final day together as a group before we begin our exams.
Although I am unsure why I’ve been chosen today to represent the student voice, I know part of it must be how passionate I am about what goes into a good education. It is not just about bums on seats and how many Powerpoints Mr Ambrose can take us through in Biology. Nor is it about results or who gets the best grades. What makes a good education is so much more than that.
And in my ending, I’m going to try once again to refer to occasion, to the audience.
As I come to the end, I hope you share my vision of what makes a good education, but that you also share my gratitude to the school for the role they have played in giving us the very best. I know I also speak for us all when I thank the school for playing their part in making our school days truly the best days of our life, and I know you will join with me now in thanking our headteacher, Mr Burns, and his wonderful and dedicated body of staff who have given us so very much. Whilst education may be many things, it is in no small part down to those people who provide it for us.
I hope I speak on behalf of our year group when I ask that you accept our most sincere thanks. We will go out into the exams and the world beyond hoping to do you proud.
Not Julius Caesar or Henry V, not Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, but speechy for sure. Appropriate, I hope, for the occasion and the audience, too.
Next up: leaflets