The art of public speaking

Published 8:59 pm Saturday, October 20, 2012

By Dennis Edwards

Suffolk taught all of us incredibly valuable lessons growing up. There was no better place to come of age in the ‘60s, when every day brought new social, political and cultural changes and challenges.

We played in every kind of neighborhood, from the wealthy to the poor. Often, one was around the corner from the other.

Email newsletter signup

My mother, who taught school at East Suffolk Elementary for more than 30 years, and grandmother (retired Planters worker) frequently demonstrated an essential community standard without saying a word. They spoke to whomever they met, whereever they met them. Nothing major about the greeting. Both called everybody by name. But my Mother in particular used to fascinated me by knowing their parents and their parents’ parents.

From them, I learned personhood isn’t determined by where folks live, what they do or what kind of homes they have. The expectation was that I’d speak respectfully to everybody, whether they sat on their porch, were walking down the street or even when they weren’t at their best.

That kind of public speaking is an art form in and off itself. It carries with it an essential acknowledgement of and respect for every person in community. It’s a variation of sorts on the “I think, therefore I am” thing. It was a warm affirmation of personhood.

Not to speak to someone was the supreme insult, and to many Suffolkians it still is. I used to hear the hurt all the time. “I can’t believe he/she didn’t speak to me!”

Not speaking is an easy mistake to make. Unfortunately, those of us who have a lot on our minds sometimes intentionally and unintentionally walk right by folks as if they don’t exist. I think, like most of us, politicians inadvertently do that.

It apparently happened to a 9-year-old girl at the Peanut Festival. She was visiting campaign booths with her family. They stopped in on a mayoral candidate who was talking to everybody (they felt) but them. She lingered hoping to get a hello.

A quick-thinking campaign worker handed her a sticker to wear with the candidate’s name on it. She was quietly disappointed, but wore the sticker anyway.

Later the little girl ran into a second mayoral candidate who wanted to know how she got the sticker. She told him and wondered how a candidate would want her to wear their nametag but didn’t speak to her. Who says youngsters aren’t paying attention?

Of course, the opposing candidate suggested she follow her instincts. So off came the first name tag and on went the second candidate’s sticker. In the process, the little girl stepped on the old one as she walked away. Wonder who’ll get that family’s vote?

The art of public speaking I learned in Suffolk has opened hearts and doors for me all around the country. Folks I simply spoke to always spoke back, frequently sharing information with me that no one else knew.

The art in this kind of public speaking doesn’t always stir a crowd. But, it can create a special moment, a connection between a little girl and a candidate she’d like to be like.

Maybe the art in this public speaking is a simple nod, an “I-see-you” moment. Maybe it’s an effortless gesture that could have given a 9-year-old girl an election memory she’d never forget.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at