February was always speech-writing season in my home while growing up. Since the Royal Canadian Legion public speaking competitions began mid-month, my mom would make us dig out a notebook and start brainstorming for potential speech topics as soon as February 1st arrived. Coming from a family of four kids, we’ve written a lot of speeches about a lot of different things over the years, such as bread-making, Gutenberg, famous women adventurers, table manners, keeping chickens, my grandmother, making maple syrup, and – most successful of all – salt.
After deciding on a topic after much deliberation, we then began the brainstorming process, followed by numerous drafts. Editing required many painful hours, since my mother was a ruthless editor. Sometimes she’d say it was all rotten and we’d have to start again. Other times she just covered it with her neat writing, cutting and pasting and suggesting a different approach. It was frustrating work that all too often ended in fights and tears, but after a week of working together, I’d have a pretty great speech. Much of what I now know about writing is thanks to her diligence each February.
The next step was to learn the speech. I practiced multiple times a day, reciting to my ever-patient parents at every opportunity. Any guests unlucky enough to show up were also subjected to my practicing, though most seemed quite happy to do so. I copied the speech onto index cards that fit into my hand, but quickly had the entire thing by heart. I’ve learned over the years that that’s the best way to ensure success – knowing a speech so well that you can say it in your sleep.
Competitions were always held at the local Royal Canadian Legion and whoever won first and second place would travel somewhere in the province to compete elsewhere. Every single Legion is the same, no matter where you are. There is a whole ritual involved that gets repeated at each competition. The sergeant-at-arms is announced, everyone stands, and there’s a whole lot of marching and stomping with flagpoles as the grizzled old vets with their decorations and blue-with-gold-fringe suits get themselves in order. We then sing “God Save the Queen” while facing Her Majesty’s rather outdated portrait, followed by “O Canada.” Finally, the contest could begin, always in order of youngest to oldest.
By the time my senior category came along, I’d had a good hour to become highly nervous and shaky. I’d step up to the front, the man with the timer would signal to me that the clock was about to start, I’d take a deep breath, and jump right in. Within a few seconds, I’d relax, relieved that I’d worked so hard to memorize the whole thing and confident that it fit into the 5-7 minutes boundaries. In fact, I usually got an adrenaline rush as I spoke. Performing a speech is in many ways like clicking the “publish” key on my blog – the final step in writing that makes it truly worthwhile. As the elderly judges conferred afterwards, we mingled while nibbling nanaimo bars and quaffing sickeningly sweet Kool-Aid.
I much preferred the Legion speech competitions to those held by the Lions Club. The Lions required its competitors to do an impromptu speech in addition to the prepared one. We were given five minutes to write a speech on a topic pulled from a hat. I once got “Should the legal drinking age in Ontario be changed?” I was thirteen at the time. I didn’t even know what the legal drinking age was! I’ve never been so terrified in my life and mostly wasted those five minutes in a state of panic. Needless to say, I did not win that day.
With the Legion, however, I did quite well. In grade ten I wrote a speech about salt that won the provincial championships. I talked about the history of salt, of Roman days when it was worth more than gold, of cities built of salt blocks in West Africa, of superstitions and strange uses. Along with the gold medal came a hefty $500 cheque, which made all that effort more than worth it! Now my two brothers, who are quite a bit younger than me, are writing and giving speeches. One of them is off to a competition this very afternoon and was practicing as I left the house. A few weeks back, he was approached by an old Legionnaire who said, “Tell your sister I’ve never been able to think about salt the same way since she gave that speech!”
I suppose that’s the beauty of speech-writing. We write and present words that make a lasting impression on people while giving us, the speech makers, invaluable training and practice. My speeches have prepared me for so many areas in life that I’d say it’s been one of the most valuable parts of my overall education. I’ll do the same with my kids – sitting them down, helping them to learn how to write, working on presentation and voice projection, and watching them get over stage fright as they perform. I’m so grateful to my parents for insisting on it each February.