Although public speaking is terrifying to many, it is also a skill cultivated and strengthened during our four years at Middlebury. To begin to break down barriers and fears of public speaking, the Oratory Now team organized the Spencer Prize competition, a speech competition for first-year students and sophomore Febs.
Professor John Spencer, who gave 35 years of his life to Middlebury, was a strong advocate for the importance of public speaking and encouraged students, faculty, presidents and alumni to embrace its impact and value. Jeff Vallone ’97.5, a former advisee of Professor Spencer’s, recalls fondly Professor Spencer’s teaching in his first-year seminar. He spoke about the creative way that Spencer drilled his students and how it helped them grow throughout the semester.
According to Benjamin Powers, an Oratory Now associate, the Oratory Now team believes that this award helps build layers of community across campus by providing a venue for thoughtful speaking and listening. Powers explains that various groups of people worked together to ensure the success of this competition: the Oratory Now team sent out special invitations to faculty members to nominate first-years with great potential, and every Commons was invited to host a “Commons Championship,” which gave nominated students a platform to speak to a smaller group of their peers, friends, faculty and staff. Furthermore, each of the student nominees were offered one-on-one oratory coaching to aid in the preparation of the speeches that they would be giving at the Commons event. Posters, social media campaigns and a website were all created in order to publicize the event.
In January there were five Commons competitions, in which lounges were adopted into cozy fireside amphitheaters with music, soft lighting and a make-your-own-hot-chocolate bar. Each of the 46 competing students prepared a three-minute talk in response to the prompt, “Connect something you learned in a Middlebury class to something you care about. Can you get your Commons to care too?” Treasure Brooks ’21, the Cook Commons winner, said that participating in the Oratory Now competition was a great experience.
“I was so engaged by the eloquence and passion of the other speakers that I quickly lost interest in the competitive aspect and was just grateful to speak alongside such talented writers and orators”she said.
Edgar Holmes ’20.5, the Ross Commons winner, found thee experience challenging but enjoyable. “I thought that the expectation was high but the pressure was low, creating the perfect environment for students to share their experiences and ideas” he said.
The other three Commons winners, Katie Marshall, Jeremy Navarro and Amanda Werner, will all be joining Brooks and Edgar Holmes in the Grand Championship following February recess. This championship concludes with six-minute presentations from each Commons winner, with an additional two-minute “Lightning Q&A” from the judges in the hall.
“Although I am slightly nervous, I am honored and excited to be representing Wonnacott Commons,” Amanda Werner said. While nerves are definitely present in all the competitors, a strong sense of gratitude and comradery is shared between them.
“I feel very supported by the fantastic Oratory Now team of producers and coaches and am incredibly proud of my fellow Commons champs!”Werner said.
Additionally, Brooks explains that she is filled with a lot of satisfaction for what she’s already accomplished, excitement for what’s to come, and most of all a lot of gratitude for Oratory Now presenting her with this opportunity.
The nominees performed in front of a total of 350 audience members, including a panel of three faculty judges who evaluated the speeches based on how compelling, persuasive and engaging they were. Within each Commons, a champion, two runners-up and a People’s Choice speaker were recognized, although only the commons champion will go on to compete in the Grand Championship. The judges at the Grand Championship will award the first annual Spencer Prize in Oratory to one of the five Commons champions based on their expanded speech and eloquence in receiving questions and giving adequate answers to the panel of special guest judges.
The Grand Championship will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Robinson Hall at the Mahaney Center for the Arts.