Charities in action: Unaccustomed as I am...

The Citizenship Foundation's Youth Act project works with public speaking coaches in schools to increase confidence in young people and encourage them to speak up and make a difference in their communities.

It is lunchtime and 15 youngsters are sitting in the library of Warwick School for Boys in Walthamstow, north-east London. They're a lively bunch, quick to throw jocular insults at one another, and the odd slap is dished out alongside the jokes.

The scene looks like a detention period that a teacher has not yet arrived to oversee. But these boys haven't been behaving badly; they are participants in Youth Act, a programme set up by the Citizenship Foundation, a charity that attempts to engage young people in the community by developing their citizenship skills and their understanding of communities.

Youth Act works with young people between the ages of 11 and 18, aiming to improve their confidence and motivation levels. To date, the 13- and 14-year-old participants from Warwick School have attended several classroom-based and residential activities as part of their own six-week programme.

Soon they hope to join the 130 other people that have completed the course so far.

What lies in store for them today is something very different. The boys are by now familiar with Youth Act's interactive style of tuition, but they're not necessarily prepared for Dallas Leigh-Hill, programme director at the training organisation SpeakersBank, which has been commissioned by the Citizenship Foundation to coach the boys in public speaking. For most of them, it comes as a shock when Leigh-Hill walks to the front of the class and booms "why bother?" Pausing to ensure she has their full attention, she continues, this time in a much softer tone. "Why is public speaking a skill we need?" she asks.

She invites the boys to respond in whatever way they see fit, and then launches into a colourful description of her life. She asks each of the boys to stand up and describe himself to the group in a similarly "interesting way".

The responses aren't as vivid as Leigh-Hill's story, but the youngsters start to understand the purpose of the exercise when she enquires what stood out for them in the monologues they've just heard. With responses including "body language and eye contact", "humour" and "not speaking too quietly", the boys begin to appreciate the importance to successful public speaking of such factors as pace, tone and wit.

But that's not all. One observation from the group is that a powerful introduction and conclusion are crucial to a really strong speech. As Leigh-Hill explains: "They make up 99 per cent of good public speaking."

To illustrate this, she asks one of the group to give her a topic - any topic - for her to discuss. One boy suggests "the colour of the roof", hoping to catch the trainer out with this dreary suggestion. But Leigh-Hill turns the situation around, dramatically beginning her narrative with the words: "One woman. One name. One place." Using 30 seconds to describe how her grandmother despised the colour grey, she concludes with the powerful finale: "Rest in peace, grandma Doris."

Now it's the students' turn. Each is asked to think up a topic and present it with a compelling opening and conclusion. Ten minutes of preparation ensue, with the youngsters taking guidance from both Leigh-Hill and Richard John, project support officer for youth programmes at the Citizenship Foundation. Then the presentations begin.

When it's his turn, one of the boys stands at the front of the class and begins clearly and slowly with the words: "Jacob means 'beloved son', but sometimes I don't feel very beloved. Just ask my brother and sister, who are eight and 10."

Another, Shajid, concludes his monologue about family with the powerful sentences: "You can be whatever you want to be. Just appreciate what you've got."

At the end of each presentation, Leigh-Hill talks the students through their strengths and weaknesses. She recalls their weak spots - including lack of intonation in the voice, nervous pacing on stage and poor eye contact with the audience - before concluding in each case on a positive note.

Two exercises later, the session is over. So what have the boys learned from this component of their Youth Act training? One, Curtley Straughn, feels he has gained a lot from his time with Leigh-Hill. "I've been doing this project for three weeks now, but I reckon this has been the most exciting session," he says. "I've learned a lot about public speaking."

John believes the public speaking tutorial will give students the courage to voice their opinions in the community. "This session is interactive, fast-paced and delivered with humour," he says. "Above all, it inspires confidence. Young people need to have that confidence if they are to be taken seriously."


SpeakersBank is a non-profit organisation dedicated to training people in public speaking. Founded in 2002, the organisation is a division of the registered charity SpeakersTrust, which focuses on developing speaking skills throughout the UK and Ireland.

To date, SpeakersBank has trained 16,000 people, ranging from single mothers to people in care. However, one of the biggest components of the organisation's work is coaching students from London state schools. By the end of this academic year, SpeakersBank hopes to have trained 25,000 people in total.

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