Published: 14:14, May 29, 2024
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More than just words
By Gui Qian

China's young speakers reflect on their experiences and learning from the International Public Speaking Competition in London, emphasizing the power of storytelling to unite diverse cultures and ideas.

Liu Baoxiang (back row, center) and Yang Zihan (front row, third from right) pose for a photo with contestants from different countries and regions at the International Public Speaking Competition, held in London, UK, from May 13 to 17. (LI BOHAN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

From May 13 to 17, approximately 40 young speakers from over 30 countries and regions gathered in London, UK, for the International Public Speaking Competition (IPSC), the world's largest event of its kind.

These talented young speakers, aged between 16 and 20, presented their speeches in the semifinal and the grand final, addressing the themes "A great leader can change the world in an instant" and "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" respectively.

It’s not just about sharing Chinese stories; it’s about presenting them effectively.

Liu Baoxiang, 19, a student at Peking University

Among the contestants were two young people from the Chinese mainland: 19-year-old Liu Baoxiang from Beijing and 16-year-old Yang Zihan from Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong province.

In their semifinal speeches, both of them chose to take a broader perspective and a higher analytical stance, going beyond discussions centered on a specific leader.

In Yang's speech titled "We Light Up", she told stories of how war correspondents draw public attention to wars and conflicts, emphasizing that the leaders of our era need to similarly ignite empathy in others. Liu, on the other hand, explored various types of leaders across different times and places, ultimately concluding that each of us has the potential to become a leader and contribute to world peace and stability.

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The theme of the grand final, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so", is a quote from William Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet, in which the Prince of Denmark uses it to express his internal suffering.

Although they didn't make it to the final, they had their speeches prepared, and both believed that a good way to elaborate on this theme was to draw from their personal experiences.

Yang, in a draft of her speech, shared her journey as an influencer of learning methods on the Chinese lifestyle app Xiaohongshu, where she encountered both praise and criticism. Through this experience, Yang realized that the world is not simply divided into good and bad, love and hate, but is a place full of differences. She stressed the importance for the new generation to let go of their prejudices and learn to embrace diversity.

Liu wrote about his changing attitudes toward adversity from childhood to adulthood, evolving from a mindset of absolutism to one of introspection and personal growth.

Reflecting on his own and his fellow contestants' performances, Liu identified two key elements fundamental to delivering a compelling speech.

"What truly matters are the speaker's vision and emotional depth," he said. "I think this might be a distinguishing trait of Chinese contestants. While foreign speakers usually focus on personal anecdotes and stories about those around them, our speeches often reflect the Chinese philosophy of universal harmony and the idea of a unified world, a belief that has been ingrained in our culture for thousands of years."

The other key element, according to Liu, is the narrative, especially on the global stage. For example, using literary techniques such as foreshadowing and contrast can be effective.

"In addition to the content, the delivery is also crucial. We need more engaging storytelling techniques that can immediately grab the audience's attention," he said. "It's not just about sharing Chinese stories; it's about presenting them effectively."

Yang believes that a unique stage presence can help contestants stand out. "In my opinion, the six finalists might not necessarily be the ones who gave the best speeches, but they certainly have the best stage presence," she said.

However, through public speaking, by stepping onto bigger stages, we can amplify our voices and reach a wider audience.

Yang Zihan, 16, a student at Shenzhen Middle School

Yang was particularly captivated by the contestant from New Zealand. "Her voice was powerful, she smiled throughout her speech, and she radiated confidence and hope, giving off the impression that she was there to change the world," said Yang.

She was also impressed by how the contestant from France was so good at using the space. "He gracefully moved around during his speech, making eye contact with the audience from all directions, creating a dynamic and engaging atmosphere," she said.

Liu also noted the "diverse and distinctive" styles of speeches in this international competition. "The contestant from Mauritius was particularly poetic. The Pakistani speaker was passionate, like a warrior. The Danish contestant surprised me the most. Her speech began quite casually, not immediately intriguing, but she gradually drew you in with her personal stories, leading you along at her own pace until you were completely absorbed," he recalled.

Apart from techniques and style, Yang and Liu also gained insights into the essence of public speaking during this one-week journey.

"I see public speaking as a way to let ideas fly. In our daily lives, our thoughts and perspectives are usually heard by only a limited number of people around us. However, through public speaking, by stepping onto bigger stages, we can amplify our voices and reach a wider audience," Yang said.

Liu, on the other hand, believes that the ultimate purpose of a speech is not just to deliver it, but to "touch hearts, offer advice, and unite people".

"A speech has the power to awaken the conscience within people and is a crucial step in transforming words into action. In today's international context, English speeches carry even more responsibilities," he said. "People use a common language to tell stories that reflect their unique national conditions, backgrounds, and cultures. Therefore, public speaking is not about promoting a single ideology but rather the integration of diverse cultures."

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The exchange of ideas doesn't only happen within the competition but extends beyond the contest itself. Liu recalls his interactions with peers from various countries and regions, including discussing political theories with a contestant from Chile and the paths of national development with one from Poland.

"I noticed that many foreign participants are very interested in China and have an accepting attitude. As long as we are brave enough to share our stories and showcase the real, open, and inclusive China, we can establish a positive national image on the international stage and demonstrate the spirit of the new generation of Chinese youth," he said.

Yang was also moved by the supportive atmosphere among the participants.

"Throughout the competition, no one focused on rankings. Everyone sincerely congratulated the winners without any sense of regret or complaint because the journey itself provided us with much more than just winning a medal," she said.