22 April 2021
Fear of public speaking is one to which many people can relate. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 73% of the U.S population, or 238 million people, struggle with public speaking. Although public speaking is frequently dreaded, it is also one of the most essential life skills in many occupations. USpeak, a club at Atholton High School, provides students a low-pressure, supportive environment to develop their public-speaking skills.
“You can’t get better at public speaking if you don’t public speak. It’s not going to happen overnight, so you have to practice. Even if you feel pretty nervous or you’re scared that your public speaking is not as good as everyone else’s, you have to address it,” said AHS senior and USpeak co-president Maggie Fan. “At a club like USpeak, it’s very comfortable. It’s a really great club to meet new people and really help other people get confident in their own voice and being able to speak very clearly and confidently.”
USpeak, formerly known as Toastmasters, was founded a couple of years ago by Fan’s brother and is similar to the many groups nationwide designed to help its members improve their self-confidence in public speaking. In USpeak, AHS students have the opportunity to practice their public-speaking skills while receiving positive feedback from other students. The leaders prepare presentations to guide members towards becoming better speakers with strategies related to eye contact, posture, or body language. Whether for personal or professional reasons, USpeak is the “perfect place to practice in a small group setting and build their speaking skills,” said Mrs. Dulany, an English teacher at AHS and the club’s former sponsor. She elaborated further that USpeak can be very effective “in preparation for class speeches and public speaking beyond high school.”
A key piece of USpeak involves “table topics” that are 1-2 minute impromptu speeches in which members have to think on the spot to answer a random question. Fan explained that impromptu speaking “trains your brain to think faster” that can help to produce “a conversation out of nothing.” Many of the prompts apply to real-life situations that will ultimately prepare students in their lives outside of high school. A job interview or college application, for example, requires a brief time of thinking and the ability to respond quickly. Impromptu speaking applies both skills to improve the quality and efficiency of responses. “Our goal was to prepare members for any future endeavors,” she said.
Members can participate in USpeak whenever they feel comfortable or, if they do not feel ready to speak, they can observe other members’ speeches and provide feedback. The most emphasized point of USpeak is that the atmosphere and tone are relaxed and nonjudgmental.
“We’re pretty laid back. Not everything we do is formal. In fact, most of it is casual speaking. What usually helps most people is to talk casually as if you were talking to your friends. As you become more comfortable, you can start building a more formal tone,” said AHS senior and USpeak co-president Ze-wen Yu. “It may seem scary at first, but we’re all here to get better.”
Yu acknowledged that in one activity, members watched “bad speeches on Youtube” and afterward discussed “everything they did wrong” along with ways to correct those errors. Giving and receiving constructive feedback is crucial to developing skills and confidence. Members learned to identify changes they can make in their speaking and worked towards improving. Constructive criticism is most effective when in person, making it challenging for USpeak in the virtual environment. As Yu observed, it “restricted our assessments of body language and eye contact,” he said.
USpeak is among the smallest clubs at Atholton, and most of the members are graduating. It is uncertain whether the club will recruit enough new members to be able to continue next year. In the past, only around seven members met regularly, along with an occasional new member who would try out the club.
“I don’t know if USpeak is going to be there next year because me and Ze-wen are going to be gone and most of the members. I’d like to say next year we will still be able to have a club, especially because Mrs. Dulany is so passionate about USpeak. I think we have a junior that we’ve set in mind to continue running the club, but if not, then it’ll be the end. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue the club next year,” Fan said.
If the club is discontinued, it would be a missed opportunity for students because the experience and community of USpeak can be fun as well as beneficial. Yu expressed that USpeak “really helped me improve, and I realized many of the challenges I faced are shared among others.” In addition, Mrs. Dulany shared her observations. “I’ve watched some shy students feel more comfortable speaking in front of this group. I really like this club and think it’s important for Atholton to have a place for students to build public-speaking skills.”
The club is not currently holding meetings due to scheduling conflicts, as some members are occupied with college preparation. However, if you are interested in joining the USpeak club next year, reach out to the club’s Instagram @uspeakahs.