Ben Lowry: Brave pupils try the tricky art of public speaking at Edgar Graham memorial event

Anne Graham, sister of the late Edgar Graham, speaks at the close of the Edgar Graham Memorial speaking competition, in the senate, Stormont, March 20 2019
Anne Graham, sister of the late Edgar Graham, speaks at the close of the Edgar Graham Memorial speaking competition, in the senate, Stormont, March 20 2019

It was wonderful to see school pupils at Stormont stand up to speak in the Edgar Graham memorial public speaking competition on Wednesday night.

A family friend of mine once said he regrets only learning to public speak in his 40s. I feel likewise and did few live radio broadcasts before 2014, when I too was in my 40s – late in life to begin to speak publicly.

Yet I had every chance to learn as a school pupil and student, but, apart from the odd debate, did not take it (I did act in plays, which helps you get used at a young age to the scary matter of facing a crowd).

Having to limit a speech to a certain duration (for example five minutes, as in this pupil contest) is also a tricky skill best mastered young.

It surprises me how some church ministers still do not think it is a problem for a sermon to last more than 30 minutes. When I have mentioned this to evangelical friends, they sometimes reply that the message is so important that a sermon should not be constrained.

But what is the point if you lose your audience?

I was at a political discussion last year where members of the panel, all of them well into adulthood, were to speak for five minutes at the start. But the four panellists spoke for a combined 50 minutes of ‘introductory’ words (in one case 17 minutes!). The failure of speakers to control their talks wiped out time for questions, and ruined the event.

So any young person who masters the difficult art of public speaking is gaining a crucial skill.

Congratulations to the winner Olivia Neill of Ballyclare Secondary and the other brave entrants.

Anne Graham, sister of Edgar (shot dead by IRA at Queen’s University in 1983, aged 29) paid a tribute to him and his career but the event was primarily about encouraging young people in the art of public speaking, rather than political.

On other occasions in recent years, Anne has asked of republicans: will you condemn Edgar’s murder? They never answer (ie, they won’t).

While some Troubles killings get expensive investigations, in a shameful hierarchy of victims, she just got an HET letter. Let us be clear: there will never be real scrutiny of that heinous crime.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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