Sometimes on the last day of my Public Speaking class, we do impromptu speeches. When it is their turn to speak, each student will draw two topics out of an envelope. They select the one they want to speak about, and then they have two minutes to prepare a one-minute speech on the topic they chose. I also tell them that after they have all spoken, the class can choose any topic they want me to do (keep it clean! I say), and I will speak on it for one minute, without preparation and without notes.
It is always a lot of fun, and I have been given some wild topics to speak on over the years. My favorite topic was in a class last spring, when they asked me to speak on the question, “Who is your favorite student?” This one surprised me, because I am usually asked to speak about, “Your most embarrassing moment,” or, “Your thoughts on safe sex,” or similar topics.
I said a quick prayer as I walked to the front, really not sure at all how I was going to handle this. I smiled and named the young man right in front of me as my “favorite,” and several students yelled, “I knew it!” I spoke for a few seconds about him, telling the class why this guy was the best.
Then I looked at the next student and said that she was my favorite student, and shared some things about why she comes out on top. When I looked at the student beside her and named him my favorite, the whole class burst into laughter. They realized that I was going to go through the whole class, and I watched them all settle into their seats with eager smiles, as they waited until it was their turn to be praised.
I had a blast doing that and got a round of applause and a few “thank-you” comments as they filed out. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about that exercise any, until this week, when I got an email from one of the students who was there that day. She gave me permission to use her comments in this column.
She wrote, “I’m not sure if you knew this about me but I am [a leader] in the school of communication. With this position I had to go on a retreat this weekend to the Outer Banks with the rest of the [student government leaders]. On this retreat we had an awesome presentation on how to deal with biases and pre-judgments and we talked about how that has affected our lives. I said how since I’m a girl with blonde hair and my big/hyper personality, people tend to have this idea that I’m not as smart or shallow. We reflected on this and talked about the best affirmation you’ve ever received. I will never forget the last day of class where you looked at me and said, ‘You are so smart.’ That was the first time a teacher has ever said that to me. It clearly stuck with me for a long time and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.
“I wanted to let you know how much that small compliment meant to me. I think sometimes people tend to forget how much their words have an impact on someone else positive or negative.”
My former student is right, and we all know it, don’t we? Our words are powerful, and can build up or tear down, and yet we are often much too careless about what we say and how we say it.
The Bible has much to say about our words, but a verse that says it clearly is this one from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Lives are changed by grace, and grace-filled speech can bring healing and help. That is powerful truth, and news we can use.