Before they head to Hawaii at the end of the month for the National Academic Decathlon, the Rhode Island Academic Decathlon champions from Bishop Hendricken High School had the opportunity to work on their public speaking skills with Ed Skurka, “the basketball coach of public speaking.”
Since competing against teams from 15 other high schools in the Rhode Island competition on March 9 at the Knight Campus of the Community College of Rhode Island to win the title, the team of nine Hendricken students has been preparing to compete at Nationals in Honolulu, Hawaii from April 24 through April 26 in 10 areas, including a planned speech and impromptu interview portion, both of which take place before a panel of judges.
Skurka, who has trained more than 3,000 professionals in his Public Speaking Workout program, served as one of the judges for the Rhode Island competition. While watching a number of students deliver their speeches standing behind the lectern and reading directly off their notes, Skurka knew if students took part in his training program, they would be much more comfortable and confident during this portion of competition.
So Skurka offered his training program, free of charge, to the winning team to help them prepare for nationals. Hendricken coach Sister Carol Ann Murray happily accepted, acknowledging that her students would benefit from the advice of another person aside from herself.
“The consensus comment [of people who take part in the Workshop] is, ‘I wish I had training like this in school, college or earlier on in my career,’” said Skurka.
Skurka has split his usual four-hour training workshop into two, two-hour periods to work with the students. The first took place last Friday, during which time Skurka had each student speak for two minutes about themselves, and then evaluated their skills such as voice projection, gestures, passion and more.
Skurka explained that he would push the students far out of their comfort zone, encouraging them to go over the top and project far more than necessary. Then they could decide how far to take it for their competition and other future speaking opportunities. “It’s your decision how much you learned here that you will apply to your next speaking opportunity,” he said. “I never want any of you to be exactly the same again.”
Skurka may be a member of the elite Toastmasters public speaking organization, but even he admits he was not comfortable with public speaking during his military career earlier in his life. He believes public speaking is one of the most common fears because it is not a skill that is practiced regularly like sports or academics.
“My career would have been totally different had I overcome that fear earlier,” said Skurka. “This training, Public Speaking Workout, is as close to that basic training as you can get.”
And Skurka certainly pushed the students to their limit during their first meeting. Almost every team member was required to go around the room and practice eye contact by shaking team member’s hands and looking in their eyes for at least two seconds. They also each repeated their impromptu speech opening multiple times until they reached the level of excitement and passion Skurka was looking for and to make the start of the speech attention grabbing. Others had to practice their volume, while others needed to improve on their movement around the room.
As with most of his workshops, Skurka spent the most time giving tips to the first speaker because the following speakers took in the advice given to all previous speakers. Almost every student had the same issues, so they were able to prepare before they spoke. One such student who increased his movement and gestures because of tips given to his classmates was Warwick resident Christopher Bianco.
“Had you not had two people go before you...” said Skurka.
“I would not have done that much moving,” said Bianco with no hesitation.
Skurka said most people are told to think outside the box, but for the purpose of this training he wanted the students to throw out the box.
According to Murray, even with just one opportunity to speak each, she saw a large improvement in many of her students. “This was wonderful; I do think our speeches will be so much better,” said Murray.
She specifically noticed a great change in her student Daniel Mason; she said he is usually on the shyer side but there was a great improvement from working with Skurka.
“I am very pleased with what happened today with Dan. That is a really big plus,” said Murray.
Although she does practice impromptu speeches with her team, Murray said having additional coaching from Skurka could only help. She also hopes to find a way to have this training again next year but even earlier in the year; the current team is made up of seniors, so there will be an entirely new team to train.
The students will have three more opportunities to speak in front of and learn from Skurka during their second training day this week.