The Art of Public Speaking
Youth program helps build skills and confidence
By Jessica Laskey
Though Derek Yuan is only 17 years old, you wouldn’t know it talking to him on the phone. The Mira Loma High School senior credits his impressive verbal poise to six years of speech and debate training. And he’s determined to give other kids the chance to develop their own public speaking skills through Leaders Speak, a free online training program he co-founded with fellow Mira Loma senior Hemang Dhaulakhandi.
“I was very shy growing up,” Yuan admits. “I was really lucky I made the speech and debate team in middle school or I wouldn’t have gotten started on this path. Once I got to high school, I realized that I’d gained all these skills by participating in speech and debate competitions—but not everyone has the same access to those opportunities. We decided to spread our experience and knowledge to as many people as possible.”
Leaders Speak’s mission is to enhance students’ abilities and confidence in public speaking and persuasion. In 2019, Yuan and Dhaulakhandi started pitching Leaders Speak to local schools with the promise of a low time commitment (only an hour a week) and easy-to-follow curriculum covering argumentative structure, informative speech structure, persuasion theory, nonverbal communication and more—at no cost. Yuan even cold-called every elementary school in the Sacramento area, which showed him just how far his confidence had come.
“If you’d asked me to cold call when I was just starting out in middle school, I would have run away,” the Carmichael resident says with a laugh.
Their persistence paid off when Karyn Roth, a fifth-grade teacher at Catheryn Gates Elementary School in Roseville (where Dhaulakhandi’s younger sibling attends) decided to allow the enterprising teens to try the program out on her students. Leaders Speak was a hit, so Roth vouched for the founders and helped the program expand to other schools in the region.
When COVID-19 hit and in-person classes were no longer possible, the program moved online to Zoom and has now reached 150 students in the United States, Canada, United Arab Emirates, India, Australia and China.
“The growth was kind of a happy accident,” Yuan says. “Word of mouth has been really important, as has social media. I’m Chinese and my co-founder is Indian, so we have really vibrant social media networks we can use to communicate with our communities.”
Yuan says that age has also helped him and his fellow trainers connect with their students. All 10 Leaders Speak volunteer trainers—top competitors in local, regional and state speech and debate tournaments—are under 18.
“Being younger is much more helpful connecting with kids and getting them to learn,” Yuan says. “When an adult is lecturing you, it’s harder to relate to them, whereas our trainers share a similar culture—slang, things we’re interested in, music we listen to—and that allows us to create a fun environment. That’s one of the most important aspects of getting younger kids to learn. You have to have fun doing it or they won’t want to come back.”
While Yuan doesn’t entirely know what his future holds—he’s considering public policy, political science and international relations as possible majors in college next year—he’s clear that Leaders Speak will continue to be offered for free to reach as many kids as possible.
“Seeing our students improving keeps us going,” Yuan says. “It’s heartwarming. Some kids come in really shy, but by the end of the session, they’ve opened up, they know how to formulate their thoughts and they’re more confident and better poised to take on the world.”