Concerned that few school leavers are articulate orally, a friend of mine initiated a public speaking competition for secondary schools in the national capital. It was soon extended to include neighbouring townships. He and I, some years later, extended it to a national competition. Having established it securely, we passed the national competition into younger hands based in the heart of commercial Australia, Sydney, where sponsorships are more readily accessible.
We did all this in the name of Australian Rostrum, a nationwide public speaking organisation, which also taught chairmanship and, to a lesser extent, debating. It is a democratically conducted organisation, with impetus generally rising from club level. My friend Tom was one of the few national presidents with a vision; and he believed in community service by Rostrum. So, at the state level, I raised the money for Tom’s project, through training courses which I managed. The training courses were initially for the public, through the Australian Institute of Management.
I managed to extend our clientele to include Foreign Affairs (Foreign Service Trainees from up to twenty neighbouring countries), Trade and Industry (graduate intake), Trade Commissioner Service (Trainee Trade Commissioners), Public Service Board (graduate entrants), for a few years. These course entrants were top-drawer material; but they still found that we had something new for them – we taught them to speak with impact, without notes and a lectern, and to understand the logic of meeting procedures. In some instances we had to undo some bad practices which they had got away with in student organisations in university and elsewhere.
I then turned some of my profits to my own project. With help from a couple of committed colleagues, I established a public speaking programme for primary schools. … … For the first three years, I introduced the five finalists on TV. Each finalist speech was televised on a week night at prime children’s programme time. By the end of three years, about half of the local schools were in the programme. Twenty-five years later, two-thirds were participating. The private schools were our greatest supporters, although the winners came from the State schools too.
It’s simply fantastic to see a ten- or twelve-year-old speak with so much confidence and style, standing all alone in a large auditorium. When the first secondary school’s national final was held, in the junior section, there was a half-pint size boy of about thirteen, who was as powerful as the best senior. Here was our future, and it included the children of non-English-speaking migrants as well as some English-speaking Asian migrants.
(It was a warming experience, as these extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ indicate, to help round off so many students in their developmental phase. One example stands out. A high school girl so impressed me that, years later, I was not surprised to learn from her mother (whom I had accidentally met on a street) that her daughter had graduated, been a lawyer, and had then been head-hunted for a top position in an international corporation.
Of course, conducting an annual competition needed the whole-hearted support of a small team of competent organisers, as well as judges. I reiterate what I have always said: to be a successful leader, one needs loyal supporters; to achieve anything worthwhile, one needs committed workers. Those we had.)