Thor May
Suva, Fiji 1989


Abstract: This paper attempts to explain the criteria which judges are likely to apply in the Fiji National Oratory Contest. It comments upon some features of the 1989 contest, and suggests factors which may have underlain the performance of contestants. However, the analysis is not merely local to an historical time or place. Oratory contests are a special case of the “speaking competitions” which are widespread in countries where English is learned as a second language. The cultural beliefs and traditions which come into play in public speaking are especially important in cross-cultural situations. The solutions discussed here have universal relevance for speakers and judges.



Although this paper was first written in 1989, the state of oratory has not changed much, and the skills involved in judging oratory continue to receive little attention. This professional neglect is especially true of the "speech contests" which are held regularly all over the world where people are learning English. The requirements imposed for these speeches are always deeply affected by the cultural and educational values in each locale. This is understandable, but frequently such requirements, and the attitudes behind them, have little to do with good English speech. Of course, "good English speech" is itself a contested idea. Even putting aside all of the expected cultural biases, the judging of these speeches is very often a travesty.

In general, the "speech judges" have no training at all in judging speeches, and have never thought analytically about the task. If they are native English speakers, they are considered to be automatically qualified. Of course, they are not qualified, and if challenged are rarely able to offer a coherent defence of their preferences. The whole process is manifestly unfair to student language learners who think they are receiving an expert evaluation of their abilities. This little paper is an attempt to identify at least some of the issues involved in student speech contests. It deals with a specific speech contest in Fiji, but most of the comments can be usefully generalized to other situations.  

Each year in Fiji some secondary schools are entering their finest speakers into a national oratory contest. Hopefully the number of schools participating will grow as they come to understand the purpose of the contest and its benefits.

In 1989 I was asked to be one of the judges, and this short paper is an outcome of that experience(1). It would not be appropriate to comment here on individual participants, but some general observations could help future contestants to make the best use of their talents.

1 My fellow judges are in no way responsible for the views expressed in this paper.

1. What is an oratory contest?

Firstly, consider the nature of this particular contest. The medium is English. That is important. All Pacific language communities, as well as various peoples from the Indian sub-continent, have impressive traditions of oratory. In fact the time and skill these speech communities put into oratory as a cultural achievement dwarfs that in many native English speaking cultures; (as an Australian I come from a particularly poor oral tradition). However, the style of oratory which is admired in each tradition is rather different. One of the agonizing choices which judges in the National Oratory Contest have to make is how to evaluate speakers who have been influenced by these various cultural models. I will have more to say about this presently.

A dictionary definition of oratory is 1. eloquent speaking; 2. the art of public speaking. For many, eloquence means something like flowery, elaborate speaking. It need not be so. I still keep a poster which an exasperated colleague once pinned to my office door. The poster contains an empty cartoon speech balloon, and below it the words: It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing. His silent protest was most eloquent. Well, we can hardly have an oratory contest in which the speakers say nothing! However we can pay attention to how much they try to say, how quickly and in what manner.

The winner of the Fiji National Oratory Contest represents the country in Australia for the International Plain English Speaking Award. We have already noted that there are many possible styles of oratory, each one admired according to this tradition or that.

The International Award has been established to promote a certain kind of speaking. The key to it is found in the words plain English, and the ideas associated with plain English in this context are direct, simple, competent. The Award is a reaction against those styles which could be described as circular, elaborate, exaggerated or "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Clearly, a judge who selects a competitor in Fiji for an International Plain English Speaking Award has to be influenced by the speaker's mastery of a plain English speaking style.

2. Evaluating the 1989 National Oratory Contest

Now that the kind of oratory appropriate to the National Oratory Contest is understood, I will examine some specific points from the 1989 contest. Contestants had to give a prepared speech (8 minutes), a short interview, and an impromptu speech (3 minutes). Each activity was evaluated for content, fluency, poise and clarity. Judges therefore worked from a matrix, weighted for points :

        Overall Total 50


To some extent individuals give such categories their own interpretation. For me, they implied the following :

a) Clarity

I took clarity to mean phonological clarity rather than clarity of meaning. Clear speech comes from a combination of natural voice qualities (some people are luckier than others) and careful articulation. Both voice quality and articulation can be improved with special training, although this is not widely attempted nowadays. On the whole the contestants were impressive in this category. Maybe using English as a second language (as all of these people did) makes speakers careful. I would predict a comparable group of Australian high school students to show more slurring and indistinct speech.

b) Poise

Poise has to do with composure, self-possession, physical balance, and in fact all the "body language" which is so important in helping us to interpret spoken messages. Poise is an extremely difficult thing to maintain on a stage in front of hundreds of people who are all looking for your slightest weakness. The poise of the 1989 contestants was generally remarkable. Most kept their cool under conditions that would reduce the rest of us to quivering jellies. There are a few things which it helps public speakers to remember :

i) Take you time. Move your body parts slowly. A quick arm gesture can make you look like a chicken with a broken wing. If you are nervous, keep your arms out of the action altogether for the first couple of minutes .

ii) Try to keep a good posture. It not only looks nice, it improves you speech. Especially avoid a hunched or drooping neck and shoulders. Breathe deeply. Walk with grace; don't shuffle.

iii) Do look at the audience, even if you feel they are going to eat you. You are talking to them, not at them. Poor speakers with a memorized speech tend to hold desperate "private" monologues with themselves, while the audience gets bored watching from the outside. Play a trick on yourself : pretend that the audience is examining your clothes, your watch ... anything but you. Once your mind thinks nobody is looking at "you", nervousness will vanish.

c) Fluency

My Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics defines fluency as "..the features which give speech the qualities of being natural and normal, including native-like use of pausing, rhythm, intonation, stress, rate of speaking, and the use of interjections and interruptions."

Native-like fluency in these terms is a tall order for any second language speaker. Even for native speakers we have to ask "..fluent according to which dialect?". There are hundreds of millions of speakers of English, speaking dozens of dialects. The language is no longer the property of any nation or culture. It is not necessary, or even desirable, that all English users should speak in exactly the same way. However it is desirable that any speaker can be understood with ease by the speakers of all the other dialects. For this reason it is useful to keep some speech standard in mind, usually a "broadcast standard" in the region, or internationally what we call "mid-Atlantic dialect", which is supposedly the socially neutral dialect evolved by businessmen travelling between London and New York.

The speakers in the 1989 National Oratory Contest were all more fluent in English (by regional or international standards) than one would expect from a random sample of Fiji's citizens. That is hardly surprising. As a judge I thought it important to take note only of those features which were likely to interfere with international communication, or in some cases attract social stigma through misunderstanding. This led me to include some grammatical breakdowns involved in the notion of fluency. The following elements of fluency came to attention in the 1989 contest :

i) Stress Patterning

Speech stress is anything which gives a particular element prominence : duration, loudness, pitch change, full Vs abbreviated vowels ... and so on. It operates at a series of levels, from word to phrase, sentence and complete utterance.

Stress patterning is difficult for all second language speakers. The only noticeable problem for most contestants however was the syllable-stress on some individual words (local news-readers have similar problems). For example, contribute bothered a couple of speakers; somebody else mispronounced Caribbean. The solution with prepared speeches is to go over the material with a native speaker before the contest. A couple of speakers had stress-patterning problems stemming from their idea of what the contest was about : they preferred to shout one or two words in every phrase, which was anything but plain English.

ii) Pausing

Pausing is manipulated by almost all skilled speakers to hold attention and to emphasize points. It was clear in the oratory contest that all speakers had been coached to pause at critical moments. Unfortunately many of them forgot to manage long and short pauses in a balanced way throughout the speech. The problem arose partly because people had memorized speeches word for word and recited them in a rush to get the whole business over with. Giving a speech is not a self-absorbed activity like cleaning your teeth. It is a two-way communication with other people. A speaker gives out words, then pauses briefly to get back non-verbal signals : nods, glances, sighs, "vibrations"... Response from an audience is a difficult thing to define, but the speaker who ignores it has ceased to communicate. A speaker communicating via audience responses knows when to pause, naturally. It is even possible to glance at notes in a relaxed way, if the audience contact is right.

iii) Segmental Phonology

Some vowel & consonant sounds in Pacific English dialects differ markedly from Standard British English. It doesn't matter much, and can even be charming. There is one phoneme contrast though which has the potential to cause trouble for some speakers :/i/ & /I/, using the International Phonetic symbols; that is, the ee in feet and the i in fit. For example, a couple of contestants seemed to be saying these when they meant this.

iv) Morphology

Quite a few speakers used non-standard word forms. The Fiji English dialect seems to have an interesting morphological (ie. word-formation) rule which gives rise to the following :


(=loaf of)


In other words, people say things like a bread, two plastics, three alphabets, four slangs instead of a loaf of bread, two plastic bags, three alphabet letters, four slang words or some slang (as a collective noun). I am quite certain that this pattern is not recognized as non-standard since even prestigious figures use it on important occasions. That is fine, in Fiji. Internationally it is likely to cause some secret smiles.

v) Syntax

Because the set speeches were well prepared, the syntax showed few flaws. The interviews and impromptu speeches flustered some speakers into grammatical errors which contrasted sharply with their earlier smooth delivery. This is a minefield for second language speakers of course. The best that an individual contestant can do is to know personal weaknesses (e.g. Verb/Subject agreement), stay cool, take his/her time and try to think a little before speaking.

d) Content

Judges in the National Oratory Contest were instructed to give by far the heaviest weighting to content. This is reasonable. A person who has nothing useful to say has no business making a speech. In this category it was necessary to consider not only what speakers had to say, but how well they organized it. Also, the information that a speaker omits by choice or by ignorance conveys a great deal. Sometimes it is cleverer to imply than to assert; in other cases explicit statement is the most effective. Finally, the impact of any speech depends crucially upon how well the style of delivery matches the content.

i) Sincerity

Let us take up that last matter, because it was a source of difficulty for several contestants, at least in my evaluation. Suppose the theme were "peace on earth". A speaker with such a theme whose body language, tone and delivery all screamed naked aggression would make a very strange impression. The audience would be justified in questioning his/her sincerity. A speaker who nobody believes is wasting his time.

ii) Subject Knowledge

Sweeping statements are a dead giveaway that the speaker is talking from a very shallow understanding of the topic. The speech roughed out from scanning the first paragraphs in a couple magazine articles, cribbed from a collection of "famous speeches" or strung together from popular slogans, might fool a casual listener for a little while. Professional judges are unlikely to be impressed. A large percentage of the speeches which are given every day in organizations, businesses and meetings are of this low calibre. Adolf Hitler would never have won an oratory contest on originality. Oratory contests exist to promote skills of good thinking expressed in clear, well-organized language.

A couple of speeches in the 1989 Oratory Contest showed evidence of very careful research, organization and original thought. They were naturally rewarded with high marks. The judges were impressed by the way in which the interviewer probed each speaker on his or her chosen topic. Those who had not explored the topic in depth were quickly exposed. I have to say that most contestants showed little in-depth knowledge of their subject.

iii) Organizing Information

Cultural traditions for organizing and presenting information vary dramatically. The British student who "compares and contrasts" the ideas of, say, two prominent thinkers, then makes a critique and rejects one, would receive little sympathy and low marks in Japan. The Japanese student describes each set of ideas in turn, without direct comment, and leaves the listener/reader to infer a conclusion. This in turn would earn low marks in a Western school or university; (Ballard, 1987).

Robert Kaplan (1971) did a fascinating study of "Cultural thought patterns in intercultural education". He studied several hundred compositions from students of many cultural backgrounds and finally offered a set of graphs to describe the ways in which they developed ideas in paragraphs :


a) Linear development from narrowly defined premises to a logical conclusion b) Repetition with gradual extension to a new position  c)Parallel with progressive narrowing to a topic focus & conclusion d) Indirect approach with frequent digression to very loosely related ideas, creating a "climate" to justify the conclusion e)Defined topic with a specific focus leading to a range of vague generalities about the theme


It might be wise not to take Kaplan's graphs too literally. The general idea is clear though, and very relevant to the ways in which Pacific Islands oratory contestants might construct speeches. Readers are invited to compare the structure of a traditional Rotuman or Fijian speech with the construction of a company report delivered by a Western businessman. Both are highly functional in their own environment, but might receive a poor reception in other settings.

The general purpose of the Fiji National Oratory Contest suggests that it should be judged by the preferred patterns of "British" argument structure. That structure is reflected in the general bias of the British-ANZ education system which has been adopted by Fiji, and it is likely to be the unconscious bias of the judges.

The British structure depends upon a set of linear links in a chain of argument. These links may be based upon a sequence of events over time, or upon cause and effect, upon logical deduction/induction, upon some hierarchy in nature ...or any one of a thousand other links. Whatever the linkage, it should be clear, consistent and complete. An audience trained in this tradition will be persuaded according to how effectively such patterning is carried through. Of course, they will also be swayed by emotion, humour and other tricks of the trade which are woven into the fabric of a speech.


This paper has attempted to explain the criteria which judges are likely to apply in the Fiji National Oratory Contest. It has commented upon some features of the 1989 contest, and suggested factors which may be underlying the performance of contestants. The paper is in no sense a "complete guide to public speaking". There are many books on this subject, and some of the ones available in the University of the South Pacific library are listed in the bibliography. The National Oratory Contest deserves to grow and succeed. These comments will have served a purpose if they encourage more schools to coach more students in the ancient art of oratory.



Ballard,B (1989) Seminar on discourse styles, School of Humanities, USP; visiting lecturer    from Australian National University

Bettinghaus E (1972) The Nature of Proof, pub. Bobbs-Merrill Co, USA

Kaplan, RIB. (1971) "Cultural Thought Patterns in Intercultural Education", in hyaline   & R. Campbell (eds) Teaching English as a Second Language, pub. Tata McGraw Hill,   New Delhi. Richards J, J. Platt & H. Weber (1985) Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, pub.    Longman, UK

Roach P. (1983) English Phonetics & Phonology: a Practical Course, pub. C.U.P., UK.

tubbs M. (1983) Discourse Analysis: The Sociolinguistic Analysis of Natural     Language,    pub. Basil Blackwell, UK

The Tasman Dictionary, (1981) pub. Macquarie Library P/L, MS



Anderson, M E. Nichols & H. Booth (1974) The Speaker and His Audience 2nd ed., pub.  Harper & Row, NY

Asante, M & J. Frye (1977) Contemporary Public Communication : Applications, pub.    Harper & Row, NY

Bradley, B (1974) Fundamentals of Speech Communication : the Credibility of Ideas,    pub. W.C. Brown & Co, USA

Brandreth, G (1983) The Complete Public Speaker, pub. Robert Hale, UK

Carnegie, D (1962) The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, pub. Association    Press,    NY

Marks, W ( ) How to Give a Speech, pub. Inst. of Personnel Management, UK

Ryckman, W (1983) The Art of Speaking Effectively, pub. Dow Jones-Irvin, USA

Smithers, D (1985) How to Develop a Winning Way with Words, pub. Unwin, Australia

Stedman, W (1981) A Guide to Public Speaking, 2nd ed., pub. Prentice-Hall, NJ

White, E (1982) Practical Public Speaking, 4th ed., pub. Mammalian, NY


Note 1: In 1989, as a Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of the South Pacific, I was asked to be one of the judges in the Fiji National Oratory Contest. This contest was to be a precursor for the winners to participation in international contests. Further, traditions of oratory in Pacific Islands cultures are radically different to those found, for example, in Anglo-Saxon styles of presentation. It was therefore an excellent opportunity to compare varying styles of oratory, and the possible consequences for Pacific Islands speakers in international forums. The preceding paper was the outcome.

Thor May 
Department of  Literature & Language 

University of the South Pacific
P.O. Box 1168 Suva, Fiji
(c) Thor May, 1989

Plain Speaking: Judging an Oratory Contest (c) Thor May 1989; all rights reserved

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