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Fay Traditions: The Power of Public Speaking

Public speaking at Fay leaves its mark, and alumni from across the years weighed in recently to share their memories and reflections on how they have taken the lessons learned at Fay with them into their adult lives.
The public speaking program is central to the Fay experience. For generations, Fay students have participated in the tradition of the annual Speech Contest. Even today, public speaking at Fay starts in the earliest years: our Primary students practice speaking in front of their peers during lunch, and beginning in third grade, students prepare and share formal speeches to supportive audiences of peers, parents, and teachers.
 
Public speaking at Fay leaves its mark, and alumni from across the years weighed in recently to share their memories and reflections on how they have taken the lessons learned at Fay with them into their adult lives. Here are a few excerpts.
 
David Rassin ’57 Professor of Pediatrics, University of Texas
 
“I had no idea how important public speaking would be when I was in school and shaking in my shoes each time I had to get up and give a talk. I don’t think we understand at that age how many professions require that you have to speak in public. As a scientist, I have presented to audiences ranging from small groups of peers, medical and graduate student lectures, and large (more than a thousand) audiences at international conferences. The concept that a scientist just sits in a lab and does experiments does not begin to describe the reality, particularly the need to present your results to the rest of the world both in writing and in presentations.”
 
Patrick Dolan ’58 High school teacher
 
“In my one year as a day student at Fay, 1957–58, I appeared in two plays, Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury and Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One. I don’t remember standing to give a speech outside of class, but these two dramatic experiences added to my confidence in presenting myself in public. I later became a 44-year high school teacher in public and private schools, from 1966 to 2010.”
 
Marcos Pittore ’65 Attorney and law professor
 
“I made it to the semi-finals of Fay’s Speech Contest for two years. Public speaking at Fay has helped me in my work as an attorney and law professor. I am very shy, and without this experience I would not have been as successful.”
 
Tony Brock Fisher ’68 Design Engineer, Hewlitt-Packard
 
“There’s a saying that ‘All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten,’ but one of the most important things I ever learned was public speaking at Fay. The Speech Contest has a long heritage at Fay, and I remember it well from my time at Fay more than 50 years ago. The arrival of the contest struck terror in the minds of most students, including me.
 
Being interested in science and technology, for my topic I chose the (then future) development of the SST, or Super-Sonic Transport, as it was then known. I can recall working on many drafts of the content of the speech, and then being coached and encouraged by Canon Fenton in my presentation. He inspired me to speak clearly, loudly, and with authority. He showed me how to avoid making the audience feel uncomfortable by knowing my topic cold. My time to present arrived, and I did pretty well, with only a few ‘ahs’ and ‘uhms’ as I referred to my note cards.
 
At the time, I could not fathom the impact this lesson would have on me. Ever since that first speech, I have always known how to present in front of an audience, referring to the tips hammered into me by Canon Fenton. Having lived through that experience, I now have confidence each time I stand in front of a crowd. In my professional life, I have often needed to speak in front of large groups—and I always fall back on what I learned at Fay.”
 
Dr. Jeffrey Jay ’73 Senior Managing Member, Great Point Partners
 
“My public speaking training at Fay was wonderful preparation for my future as a CEO.”
 
Courtney Hanna Renkes ’01 Attorney
 
“Fay’s focus on public speaking helped me immensely as an attorney, especially because I am a litigator (an attorney who speaks in court). I remember participating in the yearly speech competitions, student government, and theater productions. All of those experiences helped me to gain confidence in public speaking. Fay provided a wonderful base for me in my professional life, and did so in a way that was fun.”
 
Alexandra Horne ’05 Senior Project Manager and Data Scientist, ADM Associates
 
“Between the spring musicals, the winter drama program, the choir and a cappella performances, and the poetry and speech readings, I spent a lot of time on stage in middle school! The stage presence that encoded itself into my muscle memory during my time at Fay gave me both the confidence and the communication skills that form the core of how I speak publicly to this day. In my mind, the faculty running the arts and theater programs while I was at Fay performed a sort of miracle—they pushed our awkward middle school selves to re-learn the length and span of our growing limbs and gave us the tools to listen to our audience as we spoke—to feel, breathe, and react with them. I screamed at the top of my lungs (as the Queen in Once Upon a Mattress) and learned how to craft the cadence of my voice. So now, when I feel nerves creeping in before a lecture at an international conference or before I present research to a state public utility commission, I can breathe deeply and feel assured that the muscle memory I began to develop at Fay will enable me to communicate with composure and ease.”
 
Andrew Abbott ’62 Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago
 
In my Fay years, I always spoke in the public speaking contest and won or took honorable mention three out of four years, as I remember. I did almost no public speaking in high school, college, the military, or graduate school. But becoming a professor made public speaking an everyday obligation, and in the last forty years, I’ve given thousands of classroom lectures, hundreds of scholarly talks, and dozens of introductions, memorial talks, commentaries, presentations, and so on.
 
All that does have one thin line of continuity with public speaking at Fay School. In those days, Dr. Gilcreast coached the finalists in the public speaking contest, and he always said not to say “Thank you” at the end of the speech. To do so implied that the audience needed to be thanked for listening. And that meant that you lacked confidence in your own speech.
 
I have continued this practice all my life, replacing the “Thank you” with an unmistakably final sentence and a small bow. But audiences expect the “Thank you,” and I occasionally cave in and give it to them, particularly when the applause seems to be taking too long in coming. But I look guiltily around, all the while, expecting Dr. Gilcreast to rise from the audience and mock me for my lack of self-confidence.
 
It’s even evident on the web. I am bold enough in a 2017 lecture at the Wissenschaft Zentrum in Berlin, but giving the 37th Marc Bloch Lecture at the Sorbonne in 2015, there is a moment of guilty hesitation when the audience seems to take too long to digest my last sentence (perhaps the rules for finishing speeches are different in French?) and then the twelve-year-old Andy Abbott succumbs and mumbles a shameful “Merci.” I hope Dr. Gilcreast—who taught me my first French—will forgive this embarrassing lapse.
 
Of course I realize now that this rule—which still seems to me at age 70 like something brought by Moses from Mt. Sinai— was probably nothing but a foible, a petty annoyance that Dr. Gilcreast himself no doubt understood as such. But when we are young we are young, and Dr. Gilcreast seemed the Voice of Heaven. And perhaps elevating his foible to the level of a sacred rule is the thanks I can give to this wonderful man, who was the first genuine intellectual I had ever met. (Thank you.)
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