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Home > News and views > ‘Public speaking skills have set me up for everything I’ve done in life’

‘Public speaking skills have set me up for everything I’ve done in life’

Find out more about Sir Robert Buckland QC, guest judge at our International Public Speaking Competition 2022

As a barrister, MP and former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Sir Robert Buckland is no stranger to public speaking – in all its forms. ‘What speaking in public teaches you is how to gauge a room or how to judge an audience so you can modulate your style and approach accordingly,’ he says. ‘I do many hundreds of doorstep visits a year in normal times and they are all about breaking the ice and giving the other person an opportunity to raise any issues. At the bar and in parliamentary business, I rely on the model of putting an argument together that I learnt as a university debater (introduction, four points, conclusion) – which was also where I learnt the skill of the ten-minute extempore speech – something I had to do recently when I wound up a debate on the Queen’s Speech in the House of Commons. Those skills have absolutely set me up for everything I’ve done in life.’

Though Robert did not take part in any ESU competitions himself, he acted as a convenor for the Observer Mace (later the ESU Schools’ Mace), judged debating tournaments for us, and was first reserve for the ESU’s debate tour of the US. ‘I was very disappointed to miss out,’ he says, having been pipped to the post by Kim Preston and Helen Berry, the first all-female team since 1928. ‘I didn’t appeal or object,’ he smiles, ‘I thought that if the cause of women was advanced by my discomfiture, then that was a noble thing.’

Joking aside, his most memorable experience of the ESU came during his time at Durham University when, as President of the Durham Union, he chaired a debate at Dartmouth House featuring the late Paddy Ashdown; David Hunt, then a cabinet minister, speaking for the  government; and Sir Rhodes Boysen – a Tory MP and a famous headmaster of Highbury Grove school. ‘Being at Durham it was a bit difficult to get lots of parliamentarians to come up, so I thought let’s take the mountain to Mohammed, and the ESU was really kind and supportive.’

The motion was ‘This house has no confidence in the government’ and Robert, then aged just 21, remembers it as a formative experience in his life. ‘It was on the night that Sir Anthony Meyer stood as the stalking horse against Margaret Thatcher,’ he says. ‘It was the year before Thatcher fell and the first straw in the wind that perhaps things weren’t ok with her leadership. It was just as the Berlin Wall had fallen too – it was an interesting time, an autumn of revolution.’

Though more than 20 years have passed since then, Robert’s interest in debate continues undimmed and indeed, he believes it is a skill that will be at a premium. ‘As we move from industries that are driven by the hand to those that are more by the brain, those ‘traditional’ skills of rhetoric are actually going to be more important than ever before,’ he says. ‘If young people are not able to communicate, they’re not going to be able to make the progress that they deserve to make in the world.’

He is keen to point out, however, that communication is not only about speaking. ‘I think the best debaters, the best communicators, are those who invest as much effort and concentration in listening as they do in broadcasting,’ he says. ‘Having done it for years in court – listening to evidence, noting evidence – I can tell you it really takes it out of you to listen well but for me communication is as much, if not more so, about listening as it is about speaking.’

At its heart, it is also about confidence and that is why Robert is keen to encourage young people to have a go at these skills wherever possible. As he says: ‘Even if it isn’t taken any further, the confidence that you build by holding forth or taking part in a discussion in front of others will stand you in very good stead.’


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