Speech Competition Helps Ashbrook Scholars Sharpen Valuable Skills Needed for Employment and Good Citizenship

December 24, 2020

Why is America worth saving? What is your favorite book? Is love a battlefield? These and other questions are asked and discussed in Ashbrook classrooms yet are sometimes not fully fleshed out, or go unfinished, being interrupted only by the ending of a class. Yet all of these questions have been given their full due during the Ashbrook Scholar program’s Henry Clay Speech Competition.

At the beginning of each semester, Ashbrook Scholars are proposed a question by the faculty and have four weeks to craft a five to seven minute speech answering the question. Prior to the competition, there is a practice round held during which participating students deliver their speech in front of a panel of Ashbrook faculty, staff and the previous year’s winner, who offer feedback on the overall content and delivery. Senior, Joey Barretta, who took third place, described the practice session as being “very helpful because walking up to the podium I felt extremely awkward and uncomfortable, but then realized that I was among friends, so the feedback I got felt very genuine.” However, the practice session is not simply where contestants receive feedback, but also a continuation of the discussion of the question posed to them. While receiving feedback, judges will ask contestants to explain some of their positions, so as to highlight what points need to be strengthened or to point out an interesting section of the speech that the judges simply just want to talk about more. In true Ashbrook form, the practice session feels more like a conversation.

With a week’s interim separating the practice from the final session, students refine their speeches for the final presentation, which is attended by both friends and faculty alike. The speeches are delivered again and judges decide who placed first, second, and third, each with its own monetary compensation. Freshman, Kensey McCuller, though she did not place, said she noticed “an increased confidence in delivering her speech the second time,” and that “the experience was one she would participate in again and found very helpful.” Professor Jeffrey Sikkenga, who leads the speech competition, noted “students have this weird belief that they cannot improve their public speaking, but really, they can. The way that is done is by practicing thinking out loud, which is what these speeches are.”

In conjunction with the Henry Clay Speech Competition, the Ashbrook Scholar program holds a separate competition for writing called the Taylor Excellence in Writing Award. The competition format is similar, where students will submit a piece for review and then attend a writing seminar where they receive feedback which they can use to revise their piece for final submission. The winners are compensated and featured in Ashbrook’s yearly publication Res Publica. The goal of the Ashbrook Scholar program is to educate and create principled leaders. Professor Sikkenga told us there are four main skills not just employers desire, but also foster in us the habits of good citizens. These four are thinking, reading, writing, and speaking. Through the education received in the Ashbrook Scholar program, students are better equipped to enter the world as principled leaders. Senior, Hayden Eighinger, who has won both the Taylor Competition and the Henry Clay Competition, adds “since we live in a republic, we need people who can go out into affairs and can deliberate about these serious matters facing our country. How is one able to deliberate without first asking questions or presenting an argument? Being able to articulate yourself is the first step in helping to bring a healthy deliberation back to public life.”