On April 20, Middlebury College’s initiative Oratory Now hosted the second revival of the Parker-Merrill Speech Competition. The event, originally established in 1825, took a 50-year hiatus before being reintroduced last year. This year, the competition’s topic was “What if instead…we try this?”
The six finalists were Anna Dennis ’17.5, Griffin Price ’20, Kyle Meredith ’19, Lynn Travnikova ’20, Sarah Howard ’19 and Tabitha Mueller ’18. Each delivered a 6-minute speech that was judged by three faculty judges: Reginald L. Cook Professor of American Literature Brett Millier, Assistant Professor of Dance Christal Brown and Knox Professor of International Studies Jeff Cason.
The contestants were judged on three categories: persuasiveness of idea, persuasiveness of argument and persuasiveness of delivery.
According to the competition’s organizer, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater Dana Yeaton, it was important that more value be placed on the content of the speech. “We don’t want you to just dazzle us with your footwork; we want you to say something,” he said.
The finalist’s arguments breached a wide range of topics. Meredith spoke of how “people experience the world in extremely different ways that all feel undeniably real,” which leads to increased negativity and dogmatism. Mueller described the dangers and hurt caused by people’s biases and assumptions of others. Price spoke about the country’s relationship with terrorism and media coverage.
Travnikova, who tied for second and won a $250 prize, argued for the benefits of being conscious consumers. Howard, who also tied for second, discussed the importance of being present in one’s day-to-day life.
Dennis, the competition’s champion and recipient of $500, spoke about “the role of emotional intelligence and vulnerability on campus.” Dennis chose this topic because of the problems she sees with interpersonal communication, believing that “vulnerability is actually the source of our power; the emotions and experiences that are revealed when people are vulnerable with one another are what unite us.”
In order to be a successful speaker, Yeaton believes that one must consider the audience.
“A successful speechmaker grabs an audience and never lets go. Which is almost impossibly difficult, and can only happen if the speech was conceived with that audience in mind. Great speechmakers are more like singer-songwriters than they are philosophers,” he said.
In addition, Travnikova also mentioned the importance of the audience in public speaking. “[Success is reached through] the ability to understand one’s audience and ensure a connection is made through the words being said; being able to eloquently and succinctly convey ideas through words, and also your presentation,” she said.
Yeaton believes that public speaking has a great impact on both societal and individual levels.
“Public speaking is the glue that holds society together. Or fails to. And what could be more empowering than believing you have the heart and mind and body it takes to project your ideas to an audience?” he said. “On the flip-side, if you don’t want to be manipulated, you better learn the tricks people are using to manipulate us.”
Regarding the importance of public speaking, Price also believes in its power.
“Public speaking has the power to reach beyond what is possible with just the written word. It taps into an immense human craving for storytelling that is central to our identity as a species. This makes it immensely important to the way we can understand ourselves and the world around us,” he said.
Oratory Now also works with organizations such as TEDx and other events such as Spring Student Symposium. They also offer coaching to faculty and students.