This kid walked onto stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in central London on Friday night and blew the sell- out audience away. He didn’t dance, he didn’t sing, he just spoke.
It wasn’t a Strictly Britain’s Got X-Factor type contest, but an old style speaking competition. And boy could this boy talk. Najae Hackett, from Southwark spoke about sleep. He was hilarious. Like many teenage boys, he spends a lot of time in bed, but claims that it’s all for the good of the world. If more people had a good night’s sleep there would be less car crashes in the morning.
The nine hundred spectators at the South Bank venue lapped it up. They’d come to see the Grand Final of the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge, the largest youth speaking competition in the world. I was honoured to be one of the judges.
A few years back someone had approached me at a Professional Speakers Association event and asked me if I would be a judge at a regional final in Hounslow. I went along with little expectations of enjoying the night, but with the grand notion of giving something back at grassroots level to the speaking world. Pretentious? Moi?
I loved it. The kids spoke about subjects as diverse as being an orphan to coping with being short. I was hooked. After that I judged each year in different competitions at Teddington, Tower Hamlets and Newham. A few topics crop up every year. Bullying is always popular, along with knife crime and body image. A lot of youngsters like to start their talks by referring to one of their heroes. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks often get a mention, which is fine by me, but if I hear another speech that starts, ‘I have a dream’ I will scream. It’s great to quote famous people, but it’s far better to tell your own story.
Having served my time in the regional heats, I was this year delighted to have been asked to judge a Grand Final for the first time. I joined the likes of columnist Garry Bushell, Janet Ellis off Blue Peter and actress Tracy Brabin at the judge’s briefing. Our chairman was John Bercow. If anyone knows how to be a Speaker, it is surely him.
To win a competition like this you need great content, a good structure and sparkling delivery. Ssuuna Golooba-Mutebi from Harrow demonstrated all three with a talk about how ‘bootylicious language’ was becoming too prevalent amongst youngsters and it was destroying English. Gradually during his three minute talk he introduced more of this slang, until at the end it killed him and he fell to his knees. No speaker likes to die on stage, but this ending brought a huge cheer from the crowd. I applauded wildly, to the surprise of fellow judge Virginia Ironside sitting next to me. Maybe it’s not the done thing, but this was my first Grand Final and I was enjoying it.
Megan Cass from Sutton had to wait several moments for the screeching from her schoolmates to stop before she could even start her talk. She spoke with great passion and a lot of humour about the huge embarrassment of being the first girl in her class to go through puberty. When she wore her first bra, she tried to claim it was a short vest, but no-one believed her.
There were fifteen speakers in all. Not one of them faltered; they were all calm, clear and frankly brilliant. Speaking as someone who still gets nervous every time I speak, despite making a career out of it, I was in awe of these confident youngsters.
Mahatir Pasha from Redbridge started his talk by singing God Save the Queen and ended it with the Bangladeshi national anthem. I can confirm he won’t make it as a singer, but he’s got a lot of bottle.
Sam Baxter from Kingston’s social analysis of people according to what burger they order at McDonald’s won’t win any academic prizes, but it was hugely entertaining. Not haute cuisine, but a very Happy Meal.
I was diligently filling in my scorecard on content, structure and delivery for each speaker. When Najae spoke I realised the scorecard was redundant. In four years of being a judge, I’d never seen anyone as good. He had the audience in the palm of his hand as he swaggered about the stage, proclaiming the positive benefits of sleep. Everything good in the world came about because of it, he claimed. How could basketball star Michael Jordan have grown so tall if he hadn’t rested up a lot? That’s what he was doing in bed all that time, he was growing!
Nelson Mandela spent years in prison, a lot of it in bed. He became President of his country, because he spent a long time sleeping.
And then came the killer line. For once I was happy to hear about Martin Luther King, a hero to so many young black youngsters, but Najae put a new spin on it. After all King couldn’t have said ‘I have a dream’ if he hadn’t had been sleeping. Two seats away from me, another judge Mark Easton from the BBC guffawed loudly. Gemma Cairney from Radio 1 Extra squealed in delight.
When Najae was announced as the winner, I stood up cheering loudly, thinking everybody would be on their feet. Only one other judge was, Malachi Talabi, who is the current Toastmasters speaking champion. He knew how important it is to encourage talent like this.
I hope I get asked back, despite my lack of decorum. The Speak Out Challenge is a wonderful scheme to teach youngsters how to be better communicators. It currently runs training workshops in six hundred schools across London and Essex, thanks to the philanthropy of its founder Jack Petchey.
After all that I’m off for a lie down. You can never get enough sleep you know.
Jeremy Nicholas – London, UK
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For more details about the Jack Petchey Speakout Challenge click here