World champ is a smooth talker
by Lucas Wisenthal, BA’03
Joe McGrade, U2 economics, is not afraid to argue unpopular viewpoints before large groups of strangers. In the past year, the McGill debater has contended, for example, that politicians ought to be able to mislead the public. And he’s done it with zeal.
“Some people have things that they do, and I speak,” McGrade says.
During the holiday break preceding the beginning of this semester, that penchant for public speaking took McGrade to Manila, Philippines, where he competed in the World Universities Debating Championship. He and his debating partner, Emma O’Rourke-Friel, placed 47th out of the more than 350 teams that hailed from more than 40 countries – the highest ranking of any Canadian entrants. Even more impressive, McGrade bested 70 competitors to clinch first place in the event’s public speaking competition.
McGrade’s days as a debater date back to the seventh grade. “I always enjoyed speaking, and so I just kept with it through high school, doing Model United Nations debating,” he recalls. “And then, when I got to university, the McGill Debating Union was perfect for that.”
But while McGrade was a seasoned speaker, his Model UN experience hadn’t readied him for British Parliamentary competition, in which debaters hold forth on a topic for seven minutes after preparing for just 15, as his first practice round with the team proved. “I came in there thinking, ‘I speak. I’ve been doing this for a while. I’m going to be great,’” he says. “And I just wasn’t. I couldn’t think of enough things to say. I stuttered, I stammered and I sat down without filling my time.”
His performance improved, though he admits that he still struggles with some subjects, like foreign policy. “Economics rounds are my favourite kinds of rounds—talking about the World Trade Organization, or talking about the free movement of labour, or talking about the European debt crisis,” he says.
Public speaking, however, highlights a different skillset. It’s “less about arguments and more about rhetoric,” McGrade says. “It’s about being a good speaker and being entertaining.”
To that end, in the final round of the public speaking competition at the Worlds, McGrade distinguished between “first-world problems” and “third-world problems” in a speech informed by the poverty he saw in areas neighbouring the Manila hotel where he stayed—and some of the complaints voiced by his competitors about the amenities they enjoyed. Like how maybe, just maybe, some of the annoyances people from first-world countries complain about—slow elevators, uninspired breakfast buffets—aren’t really such problems at all. “I was talking about how we were really lowering the bar on what was an issue,” he says. “It was humorous. It was mocking. It was mildly satirical.”
And it landed him as the top-ranked university speaker in the world. McGrade is aware, of course, of the dread that prevents most of us from waxing eloquent in front of an audience. He is among the blessed in that regard. “I’ve never had that,” he says. “Ever.”
The McGill Debating Union is one of the University’s oldest and most accomplished student clubs