CHRISTOPHER MAXIMOS, 17
Christopher Maximos is a senior at Delbarton School in New Jersey and a passionate advocate for communications education. Since the ninth grade, Maximos has competed nationally in Extemporaneous Speaking and Impromptu Speaking. He was a two-time finalist at the NSDA National Championship, and he won four New Jersey State Championships. Maximos currently ranks #1 in the United States for Extemporaneous Speaking.
Beyond competition, Maximos serves as the National President and Founder of teachspeech, an educational initiative seeking to develop accessible public speaking education. Through digital and in-person programming in the form of workshops and weekly blogs, teachspeech has reached 7,000 students in the United States and Afghanistan. Maximos has been recognized as a 2019 Billy Michal Student Leader, 2019 #Digital4Good Fellow, and 2018 Citizen University Youth Collaborator for his work with teachspeech. In addition, Maximos serves as the Journalism Fellowship Coordinator for Student Voice, mentoring fourteen students from across the country in developing their storytelling skills surrounding their academic experience.
Through his work as a writer, speaker, and activist, Maximos has learned the incredible value of youth voice. Maximos’s work has been published in Millennial Politics and ASCD: Education Update, and he has presented at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. He is honored to be a delegate to the 2019 International Congress of Youth Voices and to join some of the world’s preeminent youth changemakers in sparking dialogue and solutions. When Maximos is not trying to change the world, he can be found watching reality television, listening to podcasts, or trying new Starbucks drinks.
Effective Activism Requires Effective Communication; in Public & Online
originally published in Millennial Politics
by Christopher Maximos
In the immediate aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas School Shooting, a furious wave of well-spoken, youth activists emerged with pleas for measured gun control. For those on the Right, the idea of coherent, youth led advocacy was so foreign that they immediately assumed these shooting survivors were paid crisis actors. The pro-gun establishment’s presumption that high schoolers could not articulate policy frustrations reveals their willful ignorance when it comes to millennial voters, but it also meshes nicely with the idea that most Americans aren’t well-versed in public speaking.
Quite plainly, the nearly indomitable forces of societal digitization have christened public speaking as unimportant. From elementary to post-secondary education, public speaking is viewed as an ancillary skill, where students frantically search for a natural ability to express themselves or face a cycle of rhetorical disenfranchisement. While these concepts may appear nebulous, they couldn’t be more important on the organizing stage or picket lines. According to Forbes, 74% of Americans face a varying degree of Glossophobia, a fear of public speaking, and millennials are significantly less comfortable with oral communication than their preceding generations. Even as public speaking becomes an antiquated art in the digital world, the physical world’s affinity for rhetorical persuasion will leave millennials outside of the proverbial activism arena.
At its core, activism relies on face-to-face communication: the ability to persuade interest groups, voters, and lawmakers to buy into your message. As millennials attempt to confront the broken institutions of society, though, the majority lack the propensity to persuade or the confidence to assert their well-founded opinions. As Dr. Andy Billings, a communications professor at the University of Alabama, explained, “oral communication is by far the most likely mechanism that we will use to render and disseminate information, making it essential to the delivery of the entire core. Without it, our knowledge is all dressed up with no place to go.” Millennial activists understand what’s broken with society; their advocacy does not fail because their beliefs are wrong, rather their advocacy fails because the expression of their beliefs is wrong.
At Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, every student is required to take a speech & debate class. Over the course of a semester, students have the opportunity to compete against other high school students in policy debates, consider their ability to persuade neutral judges, and build a portfolio for future political and advocacy communication. The Broward County Debate Initiative, which funds Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School’s classes and the classes at over forty other high schools, has paved the way for students to understand that their words matter. The Initiative itself quantifies that public speaking education improves graduation rates by 70%, test scores by 25%, GPAs by 10%, and has an incalculable effect on a student activist’s ability to express themselves and their beliefs.
Still, outside of the Broward County bubble, public speaking education is horrendously underfunded and deemphasized. Less than 1% of total American high school students belong to the National Speech & Debate Association, even fewer are required to take a public speaking course to graduate, and nearly zero students have access to curriculums centered around advocacy-based communication. Everything from the Parkland Shooting to Black Lives Matter has proven that society depends upon outspoken citizens to yield change; it’s time for American education to both affirm and empower its next generations of oratorical advocates.
The answer to more public speaking education revolves around students. As the founder and national president of teachspeech, I interact with hundreds of high school students per month who characterize their public speaking education as a necessary evil, rather than an opportunity for expression; their schools have conditioned them to believe that oral communication has no utility beyond cramped school presentations and their social media accounts have delegitimized public speaking as inferior to the fractured slacktivism of the internet. Yet, public speaking and advocacy education needs to exist between the boundaries of educational bureaucracy and cutting-edge technology.
teachspeech, for example, seeks to create low-cost, digitally hybridized solutions to public speaking education that empowers students without divesting resources from equally important arts and social science programs. In interacting with over four hundred students and garnering endorsements from policymakers to student activist organizations, we’re advancing the narrative that strong oral communication is the base of the pyramid of stronger advocacy and student empowerment. Education should be equipping the next generation of leaders with the tools to succeed, but it’s the responsibility of advocates to recognize the importance of oral communication in their success and thereby continue to push schools towards stronger public speaking education.
Even as the dust of Parkland settles, the surviving advocates are quite literally reigniting the national conversation on effective advocacy. Our students, organizers, and concerned citizens are desperately searching for their voice in politics, but the systematic deemphasis of public speaking in schools and society only silences the voices of this generation. Rather, to empower millennial change-makers and improve advocacy, we must use oral communication and public speaking education as the microphone to amplify this generation.