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A proposal for making the speech contest a tool to prepare us for real life

Harry Cull presents his speech junior year at the speech competition in March of 2019. (Photo taken from Gonzaga Flickr)

Every year, English students at Gonzaga suddenly recall that they have to participate in the speech contest at the beginning of March.  As classes prepare near the end of each February, the handful of students who resisted procrastination and actually enjoy performing provide an excellent show for both their individual classrooms and eventually the entire grade.  The rest of the student body, however, are left dreading their turn on their classroom stage and end up giving a solemn and unenthusiastic interpretation clearly memorized the night before.  

While uncomfortable for many, public speaking is a valuable and necessary skill.  

The contest itself was first hosted by Gonzaga in 1980 in response to a request put in by the wife and mother of two Gonzaga alumni.  Her son had a speech impediment that restricted his public speaking abilities and the father served as a notoriously bold and principled attorney.  In their honor, the speech contest was founded with the intention of promoting strong presentation skills and confidence in front of large numbers of people.  She wanted to memorialize her husband and son. While this event does remain steadfast in promoting that mission, the current speech contest format could be improved to better prepare students for more authentic real-life scenarios.

The art of translating information eloquently in a public setting is not easily mastered. 

 However, most instances of addressing a large audience are not completely by heart.  The President of the United States has reference notes to guide himself when delivering a speech, so why shouldn’t we?  

For those passionate about theater and historical poetry, a memorized speech and performance, as is currently required for freshmen and sophomores, would only do the viewers more justice. The speech contest should offer this as an option, however, instead of a requirement. This would automatically funnel all of the most motivated people to perform instead of dragging others along by the ear.  

The rest of the student body would benefit from giving a rehearsed speech with material to reference; this would improve the specific skill of public speaking rather than testing their ability to commit Shakespearean sonnets to memory and having half of the older dialect fly over their head.  This would prepare participants to lead any business meeting, project or address any group in the future whereas the benefits of theatrical expertise are very limited and closed off. 

Justin Hill, Class of 2020, presents his speech junior year speech contest in March of 2019. Hill came in first three years in a row. (Photo from Gonzaga Flickr)

The focus on classic literature is valuable to some degree, but we must question how useful it is in this century.  Knowing and respecting great works is important, but having a leg up in today’s world does not involve this very often.  Leaving a person’s comfort zone is important, but there needs to be a reasonable purpose. Reciting a 300-year-old monologue does not serve much use, but conveying a point or opinion does.  

In AP Language and Composition, the in-class speech contest is conducted this way with note cards, and I think that the school-wide competition should emulate this.  The contest needs to break away from the traditional precedents of high school speaking and create a new dynamic that better prepares the students for college and beyond.

For freshmen, the contest should remain the same.  The younger, more timid group can continue to read a passage from a printed page with relatively low stakes.  During sophomore year, the speaker should give an informative speech with notecards, and during junior year, students could continue giving a persuasive speech.  Senior year should be up to the student, as long as it meets minimum time and effort criteria. This allows everyone to shine in his final contest, so students could do a memorized dramatic reading, informational speech or persuasive speech of their choice. 

Students in the Gonzaga Dramatic Association can perform Shakespeare and the future politicians can practice their State of the Union.  This would give more opportunity for passion when the restraints are loosened.  

So many people dread the speech contest, but I think these adjustments would help make it more enjoyable and more useful while maintaining a long-standing school tradition.


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    Leslie KeiserMar 3, 2020 at 9:02 pm

    A very thoughtful piece. Thank you.