The very first World Speech Day event in France took place this year. Nearly 200 people gathered in Paris, at the Université Paris Descartes, and 800 joined online for an evening of prepared speeches and an open debate on inclusive democracy. Two humanitarian organisations also successfully raised funds and awareness for their causes - education of underprivileged children and the Syrian conflict. The key part of the event was however invisible to the eye of the public on the day, and that was the richness of the journey to it.
WSD Paris 2017 was born out of an unexpected message from a stranger on LinkedIN. Simon Gibson reached out to me last November proposing to organise an event through his non-profit organisation. I had no idea how he’d found me (actually, I still don’t!) but, being dedicated to the empowerment of public speaking, the idea spoke to me instantly. After 30 minutes on the phone with Simon, I was in. His drive and passion were so contagious and the WSD mission so inspiring and close to my heart that I remember saying “It’s impossible for me to not do this now”.
First, I asked myself what kind of format the Parisian event should take. I was looking for a different angle to public speaking than what is done through my activities at Toastmasters and TEDx. After a few weeks of reflection, it dawned on me: youth! Giving the stage to unexpected young voices is just what we need. The youth, who have not been formatted to do things the way they have always been done would be the best candidates for fresh and daring new ideas. Simon also encouraged me as he already knew that many organisers worldwide were moving in the same direction, making Youth WSD events increasingly popular.
I partnered up with Run the World Association, a student-run humanitarian group which fights for equal education rights for children and was founded by Carla Apelroit, an amazing 19-year old woman. A group of six volunteers was attracted by the idea of celebrating speeches. The initial goal was to lead out with three months of public speaking training. I was planning on instructing these young students how to give memorable speeches on their big day, the 15th of March. This would be my way of giving back to others the many skills I learned from being involved in Toastmasters International. Little did I know that they were going to teach me something and make this experience mind-blowing, beyond my wildest expectations
Carla Apelroit, founder of RTW, and Evelina Judeikytė, organiser of WSD Paris 2017
In the beginning, the students were timid about their ideas and speaking skills. “I don’t have anything to share” seemed to be a typical response. After a couple of “get to know each other” sessions, the ice was broken and they began to feel at ease. One night, we spoke about migration, oppressed states, fighting for the underprivileged, reaching one’s goals no matter the obstacles and proving to others that small actions add up to big change. Seeing their eyes sparkle and tear up at the same time, and hearing them speak from their heart, I knew that night we had discovered our speaking topics. On this same night, one of the students confided to me that this would be a life-changing experience for her. What more could you ask for as an organiser?
What started out as a small idea (I was initially planning on a 50-person event) turned out to be an incredibly empowering journey. The students not only overcame shyness and gathered courage to speak about what mattered to them most, but they did it with power, confidence and skill. The feedback from the audience was enthusiastic to say the least. The quality of the speeches and their delivery were worthy of a conference given by motivational speakers. The debate in the second part of the event was so well received that the public suggested citizens should debate all of today’s societal matters this way.
I am convinced that we could only achieve what we did because of the diversity of our group. Paradoxically, it was in our diversity that we formed a unity. Whether a difference of nationalities, religious upbringing, or political beliefs, these were not differences to overcome but rather sources of viewpoints to be explored and understood.
Getting these young people to find their voices and hear them take hold of their convictions which rang out in the clear language of inclusiveness and fairness, gave them an empowerment that has surely marked them. To see them go from a point of view of thinking "I have nothing worth saying" to the sense that they had something very much worth saying, and worth being heard by hundreds of people, is gratifying to say the least. These students have found out they can tap into a power within themselves that they never knew existed.
Next year, Carla will be taking over the event at Paris Descartes. And I will be off recruiting other young organisers across France to build on World Speech Day’s ambition to become a global public speaking platform at schools and universities.
Evelina, student speakers from RTW and debaters at WSD Paris 2017