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There's an old joke that states most people at a funeral would rather be the one in the casket than the one giving the eulogy. That's because a most of us count public speaking as one of our greatest fears.
Cheshire High School student Dan Chen would not be counted amongst the majority.
Chen loves public speaking. He has always enjoyed “connecting” with a crowd of people, and giving a public speech, where he has the opportunity to share an opinion or viewpoint with an audience, allows him to indulge in that passion.
That's why, when Chen read about last year's American Legion Oratorical Contest on the Constitution, he thought it would be perfect for him.
“I really liked the idea of it and figured it would be something interesting,” he said.
The American Legion Oratorical Contest is a yearly event held in Cheshire and around the nation. Students compete in a number of different events, beginning with a school-wide competition, moving on to district, state, and then a national contest. During each event, students are asked to speaking specifically about the Constitution, it's different amendments, and the effect of the document on everyday life.
To prepare for his speech on the Constitution, Chen took the unique approach of studying some of the most skilled public speakers in American history. Watching different speeches on video, Chen tried to emulate hand gestures and tones of speech he saw in each one. He also based large portions of his speech on snippets he read in old Time Magazine articles about famous American politicians.
“It is always the hardest when you first start out,” he remembered. “I had to tape my speech and when I played it back I would think 'there is no way I can possibly win this,' but, after that, you get more comfortable with it.”
Chen won his school competition and immediately began training with CHS teacher and advisor Kathleen Hoag, who helped him refine his delivery.
“She helped me a lot,” said Chen. “I realized there was a lot I wasn't doing. She really put me on the right track.”
At the district competition, Chen admits that, by the end, he was almost burnt out. He had gone through his speech so many times, he was “just floating” by the end. Yet, his passion and delivery were once again enough to earn him the top spot, moving him on to the state-wide event.
“That was really tough,” he acknowledged. “There were a lot more competitors and we were separated into groups. When I was declared the winner of my group, I moved on to the final round.”
In that final round, Chen squared off against another student. Chosen to go second, Chen was forced to wait backstage as his competitor answered questions. With nothing to do, Chen simply sat and waited.
“You can't hear what he is being asked or what he is saying, so you're just there thinking about everything,” said Chen.
When his turn finally came, he employed all the things he had learned from Hoag and his own research. It was enough to earn the victory.
“It was relief,” he admitted. “It was a load off my chest. I relaxed so much after that.”
“I couldn't believe it,” he continued. “I just couldn't stop smiling.”
Now, the national competition awaits in Indianapolis late next month. Chen plans to prepare the same way, setting aside coaching sessions with Hoag and watching as many speeches as possible for pointers.
Yet, no matter the outcome, Chen knows the experience has been rewarding in its own right. Not only has he been afforded the opportunity to meet new people and will travel to a part of the country to which he has never been, but he has also been able to perfect a skill he loves.
“I am so much better at public speaking now,” he said. “I have also learned so much about the Constitution. I can rattle off amendments. That has been great just by itself.”