Public Speaking in London

Aoife (third from left) at Trafalgar Square with her class.

Aoife O’Riordan, class of 2017, was on the quieter side at Bolles. “It was just my comfort zone,” she said, never imagining she would find herself making a speech at Speakers’ Corner, one of the most sacred sites for public speaking.

In January 2019, Aoife spent four months in London for FSU’s study abroad programme. She was greeted by 16th century buildings (“flats” were what they called dorms in London), an original 1700s oil on plaster ceiling painting, and snow for the first time.

At first, Aoife thought her class would be tame. Public speaking was a requirement for her major and she had her initial misgivings about it. However, it ended up being one of the most memorable classes she had ever taken.

On her first day, her teacher, Gerry Slamon, came into class whistling a song for five minutes straight. “He didn’t even introduce himself,” Aoife noted. “That was when I knew the class was going to be unusual.”
Mr. Slamon asked his class why he whistled. They arrived at the conclusion that it was to leave an impression. It did, beginning an extraordinary public speaking course.
Mr. Slamon had each of his twelve students make speeches around London. Once, he had his students talk about a painting in the National Gallery. Aoife chose “The Enchanted Castle” by Claude Lorraine, a painting with a story behind it, tucked in one of the cosier corners of the museum. “I don’t usually like being in the spotlight,” said Aoife.

Over the course of four months, Aoife gave a speech about a pub in Hampstead Heath, a speech in Trafalgar Square, and more. “Perhaps the two most memorable,” Aoife said, “were the speeches I had to make on the Tube and at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park.”

Aoife found herself grappling constantly with her comfort zone and, at times, trying to defy gravity. On the Tube, Aoife remembered having to focus on not falling down while engaging the audience. “Our only guidelines…was to give those on the Tube something to feel happy and interested in,” Aoife said. She spoke about her favourite coffee shops. Fortunately, the public responded positively, leaving Aoife feeling empowered when she overheard a couple discussing the coffee shops she recommended.

The audience crowded around me and watched me with wide eyes waiting for my first words ‘Too long has Ireland sat in the shadow of England'” Aoife O’Riordan.

Speakers’ Corner has long been a place for people to come and be heard as early as the 1800s. Slamon’s only requirement was that this speech incite controversy; the more heckling a student got, the better. Aoife made a speech on the need for Ireland to be reunited with Northern Ireland. “I accused England of its selfishness and desire to maintain its imperial status, and I brought up Brexit, calling it the final straw in the self-centred British agenda.”
It was sunny and once Aoife stood up on the stool, her fear left her and words came naturally.

Aoife said, “The audience crowded around me and watched me with wide eyes, waiting for my first words, ‘Too long has Ireland sat in the shadow of England.’”
“Some students didn’t necessarily agree with the topics they spoke about while others adamantly believed in what they said,” Aoife noted, “but I believed in the core argument of my speech.”

When Aoife got heckled, she immediately shut them down with her own knowledge of her topic.
By the end of the course, Aoife learnt to appreciate herself a lot more, stand up a little taller against scrutiny, and face pressure head on.“After this class, my fear of public speaking and simply approaching a crowd of strangers disappeared.”

“I want to say Gerry was a magician, as he transformed everyone in the class into something better, pulling out the best of us that we never realized we had. Never in a million years did I think this class would be the one to change me, but I am so glad it did.”