Lessons from speech and debate camp

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, August 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. A poll in 2014 asked Americans what their number one fear was. Their answer? Public speaking.

That topped even the fear of clowns, snakes, and yes, even death.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld had a field day with this one: Public speaking number one, which means…

SEINFELD: Death is number two? This means to the average person that if you are at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

REICHARD: But some teenagers are working to change that all that. Thousands of homeschool students across the country participate in competitive speech and debate.

They meet in local groups to learn how to speak in front of a crowd, then take those skills to tournaments all over the country.

EICHER: What’s it like when a teenager decides to face his fear, stand up in front, and start talking? Anna Johansen went to Siloam Springs, Arkansas to find out.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: Let me introduce you to someone. This is Seth.

AUDIO: Of course, this last presidential race was a crazy one. There was really no right answer,  so when we’re discussing with people who are staunch Republicans or people who are staunch Democrats…

No, he’s not a politician or a lawyer or a campaign executive. He’s an 18-year-old who just graduated high school last spring.

AUDIO: The fact is, you have to look at all the different sides, and you have to be able to weigh them equally…

Most of us would hardly be this articulate if we pre-scripted our remarks. But Seth is speaking off the cuff. He’s confident, articulate, rational. Why? Well, if you ask Seth, he’ll tell you it’s because of speech and debate. He says it gives students a variety of skills.

AUDIO: They learn how to form an argument properly, they learn how to speak persuasively, they learn how to defend something that they truly believe in, as well as being open to the possibility of being wrong.

About 15 homeschoolers are here in Siloam Springs, Arkansas for a three-day debate camp. They’re learning logic, argumentation, cross examination, and public speaking.

AUDIO: Does everyone have a pen or a pencil? Okay. We’re going to practice volume. Everybody stand up!

Drew Magness is in charge of the camp. He’s 18 and just graduated himself, but he’s a veteran after four years of debate. He has the students do tongue twisters to get them warmed up.

AUDIO: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

Each student stands up in front of the whole class to practice cross examination. The topic Drew gives them is intentionally absurd so they’ll feel a little bit more comfortable with the exercise.

AUDIO: My value for today’s debate round is power. I think we should vote for whatever side of the resolution has more power. The first reason to prefer is that it ends conflict quickly.

Some students jump right in, but others are still working on building their confidence. Because cross examination is a lot harder than it sounds.

AUDIO: Okay, um, uh, uh, I know why I’m asking it, I just don’t know how to ask it.

Almost all the teens say they were nervous when they first started debate. A few confess that it wasn’t even their idea in the first place—their moms made them come.

Lizzie, age 15, says she wanted to quit her very first day. But now, she thinks it was all worth it. She says that debate has changed the way she talks to her brother.

AUDIO: We can have very intellectual arguments, no matter what they’re about, we can keep them more professional and not get so emotionally attached or involved in them.

Sixteen-year-old Nate says it’s changed the way he thinks.

AUDIO: It’s a lot easier to see and ask questions about why I believe what I believe and ask why this is true, figuring out what is the truth and what isn’t when a lot of things are presented as facts when they’re really not.

Most of these students will compete at tournaments throughout the school year. But they also hope to use the skills for other things. Lizzie explains:

AUDIO: One thing I enjoy specifically about speech…is to be able to learn how to speak about my faith and to speak about it in a very clear way to both Christians and non-Christians alike.

But there’s a problem. The teens I talked to can’t remember having any specific interactions with a non-believer.

AUDIO: I haven’t so much interactions with non-Christians, especially being homeschooled, but I hope to in the future.

AUDIO: Being homeschooled you don’t really see very many people. But I am in the band, with the highschool, and so I do get to interact with public schoolers there, but I haven’t really had a chance to share those ideas.

That didn’t seem right. Hadn’t they just said the very purpose of learning these skills is to talk to people with different beliefs? There had to be someone who had taken these skills to the streets.

AUDIO: Speech and debate is formal, it’s structured, it’s polished, and the streets of NYC are kind of the opposite of that…very messy. So originally I didn’t really think they would have an effect on each other.

That’s Sarah Pinckard. She just got back from New York City where she spent a week doing open-air evangelism. Oh, and she’s 17.

AUDIO: But what I came to realize is that when I was sharing the gospel, the part of my skills from speech and debate that I was using was the ability to know how to conduct myself to show kindness effectively…

Sarah started speech and debate when she was 12. One of the categories she competed in was apologetics.

AUDIO: Apologetics is a limited prep category where there are 100 topics that have to do with defending the Christian faith.

In competition, she’d draw one of those topics, have four minutes to prepare, then she’d give a six-minute speech. She had to have a thorough knowledge of Christianity—and common objections to it. Sarah remembers the first time she ever used that knowledge in real life. She was at a warehouse packing containers to send to a missionary.

AUDIO: One of the men who was working at that warehouse saw this pack of Bibles… and he was asking, how do you know the Bible is trustworthy if it’s been translated so many times? Which is the exact wording of an apologetics question. And I was thinking in my head, ‘Oh my goodness, well, let me tell you! How much time do you have?’

Using those skills on the streets of New York City wasn’t exactly easy.

AUDIO: It was much more emotionally challenging and draining than I expected. From morning until night, being out on the streets, being that vulnerable with people, talking about the most important thing that someone will ever hear about in their life.

Sarah knows you can’t argue anyone into becoming a Christian. Only God can change a person’s heart. But she says speech and debate gave her the skills to share the gospel in a way that’s winsome.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

(Photo/Julie Smith)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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