• thelegallybrunette

#publicspeaking : How I accepted the challenge as a debate chairperson

Definition: chairperson

'a person in charge of a meeting, organization, or department.'

It has been confirmed time and time again through polls, studies and career coach interviews that public speaking is a genuine fear for many people.

Born out of a sense of vulnerability, of being judged or laughed at, of making a mistake or not being heard, being on a stage can be a lonely feeling, even isolating.

It is often the case that this fear, be it 'stage fright', nerves or those self-conscious doubts, creep in the older a person becomes, when the youthful exuberance of a child who wants to show their parents a drawing, a new dance or a song, slowly fades into the innocent memories of childhood.

Whether it is through speech training, toastmaster's ceremonies, motivational speakers and coaches or simply standing up to speak at family events, the confidence is carefully cultivated and there is never one path to excelling at the task.

Speaking as someone who has walked onto large daunting stages as a six-year-old to perform a twelve-line poem by heart to a stern panel of judges, wearing a red velvet dress and hair in adorable curls, the spark of speaking in front of an audience was certainly born during those formative years.

It may have been that spark that allowed me to pursue drama studies and public speaking as part of the individual development pillar of Junior Chamber International Ireland, which gives members a chance to improve their presenting skills, write and deliver engaging speeches and ultimately, conquer that fear of standing up and speaking out.

'A gentle dive into the deeper end...'

#ConnectingOpportunities, the JCI Ireland way.

It is the ethos of JCI to learn by doing, and it has certainly been the case during my membership: leading innovative projects, carrying out the duties of an elected board director, performing tasks on committees and most recently at this year's annual Spring Conference, to chair the national debating championship that was being broadcasted online in the greater part of Ireland, as well as Edinburgh, Scotland and a local branch in Turkey.

A daunting prospect? Most certainly.

An online conference has become the benchmark of delivering value for organisation members in these troubled times, and the logistics that accompany such online events depend on the team members behind the scenes, the internet connectivity of the attendees and organisers, as well as the hope that the sound system or internet connection do not fail.

It would make anyone's head spin with all the moving parts, which is the case for any event, be it in a physical venue or an online space.

Terrifying? Not really.

The person who asked me to chair the conference, JCI Galway's Local President, Louise Lawless, very kindly approached me to be the debating competition chair.

Truthfully, if I had been asked at the beginning of my JCI journey as a relatively fresh-faced new member, who had joined up to take a much-needed break from law exams, it would have been a more scary prospect, though my initial instinct would have been to immediately accept and not be rude to refuse.

It is often the natural inclination of women to say 'Yes' to any request, whether through the lens of people-pleasing, kindness or politeness, the reasons may vary.

But I had no hesitation in accepting, as, during all my time in JCI, there was a consistently supportive environment which allowed members to lead with confidence, and assured that there was a resource of past local officers, experienced leaders and an encouraging National Council to always be there to answer questions and offer helpful valuable tips.

So I knew instantly that I would have support on the Zoom technology side, and that I could focus on doing my part as best as I could: explaining the debating rules, ensuring the judges were able to have time to score and that each of the team members was able to deliver their arguments with all the confidence.

'Following those who led before you'

Debating is a pivotal part of the individual development pillar in JCI. The central role of ensuring the debate runs on time, in order and according to the rules is the chairperson who announces the teams, introduces the judges, explains the rules and ensures that they are followed to the letter.

Another aspect of the chairperson that shines through, especially during the national championships, is providing light entertainment for the audience and to assist with easing the nerves of first-time debaters.

It may be the tendency of Irish people to be charming and humourous, to have fun and put people at ease, and it was something that I was encouraged to embrace as a chairperson.

While the international debating competitions are decidedly more formal and it is performing at a high level, particularly at the World Congress, with so many diverse participating teams and cultures meeting in a debate, there is a balance to be struck with showing off the charm as well as being persuasive.

But for my part, it was easy to draw on past experiences during the debating competitions, from being roped into joining a team at a local competition to travelling to Riga, Latvia to represent Ireland at the European Conference.

I had many chairpersons to look up to, to emulate and to follow their example, but ultimately, it had to be made my own.

'It will be alright on the night...'

The day of the competition dawned bright and early, with my room prepared, laptop charged and light filtering through the windows.

For my part, it was a coffee-fuelled morning as my script was being polished and my phone being monitored for updates from the conference chair and the JCI debating academy facilitator, Keira Keogh, who provided me with great advice and has been a really encouraging force for me since joining the organisation.

I was ensuring I had the rules to hand, that the scoring sheets and timesheets were prepared for the panel, and the running order confirmed so I could introduce the next competitor.

In reality, this would have been the setup for a live debate, and perhaps my nerves would have been more on edge in this setting, but perhaps not, since the support and the encouragement would have still been present in person.

A debating championship room setup. Courtesy of JCI World HQ.

Being a member of the audience for several debating competitions at national and international events, there is genuine excitement before and during the event.

Debating in JCI involves a set of rules and a strict marking scheme, but when it comes to local competitions, it is more relaxed and less formal to allow members taking part for the first time to experience it in a less stressful environment, and it was my goal to make sure that no one was feeling overly stressed.

Nerves are bound to happen, even with the most experienced presenters, but given the many rules to follow, dealing with technology and ensuring that the timekeeper was visible, were all combining into a perfect online storm.

But I did not feel stressed or overwhelmed, even once.

A woman with long dark hair,black trousers and a light grey blouse holding a microphone sits on a stage to the right of the photo talking to a group of people in a large room.
A casual way to chair a debate, certainly..

Knowing the audience was filled with fellow members, friends and an excellent team behind the scenes in charge of the Zoom technology (which I truly must get the hang of if I ever deliver a webinar someday!) I was able to deliver the rules, choose the motions and announce the speakers to come to the virtual stage.

While I made a tiny mistake with announcing one or two speakers and there were some technical hiccups with assigning breakout rooms, it overall all went smoothly and the result was a series of lively debates, that prompted laughter and virtual cheerleading in the chatbox.

As the day went on, I found myself easing more into the MC role, allowing my personality to shine through, which can be quite self-deprecating and telling stories about the times I had been a part of a debating event, always encouraging to the members, reminding them that to be able to debate in a virtual setting was a massive achievement.

The event certainly gave me more confidence as a presenter and someone who can take hold of the habitual organised chaos that is a debating competition and make it an enjoyable experience for the audience and competitors.

Not once did I ever feel isolated or alone, even when speaking to a screen in my own company. I would not have felt that sensation during a live in-person debate either, for it was a team effort and all had a part to play.

While I did not principally take part to be showered in praise, hearing the kind feedback from my fellow members was genuinely a confidence boost and something to add to my presenting journey repertoire.

What I learned from the experience can be summed up as follows:-

  • Having a script is a great assistance, but it is always important to modify it and make it your own, as well as use it as a guide rather than as a speaking crutch.

  • Be prepared for technical hitches. Simply be honest with the audience that there may be some delays and just to be patient.

  • Remember that the audience is on your side and want you to succeed.

  • Nerves are natural and can make the heart beat faster as a biological chain reaction. Use it to ground yourself and repeat a steady mantra if it helps, 'I am here. I am safe. I am okay.;

  • Mistakes are part of life, and while it is easy to believe that the audience will remember them forever, that is never the case. If they are having a good time and are entertained, little mistakes are never a catastrophe. You may even look back and chuckle at yourself, knowing you will remember for the next time.

  • Having a technical support team behind the scenes took the pressure off, so it is a strength to know what areas you need help in.

If you want to find out more about JCI Ireland, you can visit their website which I will link below.

Thanks for reading, stay safe and take care.

JCI Ireland website: https://www.jciireland.ie/

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