University of Rochester

Public Speaking Competition Initiated on Campus

December 22, 1998

Forensics at the University of Rochester has an added dimension: Besides the debate team, the University now boasts a public speaking team. And the new group is aiming to repeat its pre-season success at the team's first major official tournament in January.

Last month, the newly-formed team won an award and just missed scoring another win during an unofficial competition at SUNY Binghamton. The members will return to the Southern Tier on Jan. 30 and travel to Cornell University the following weekend to participate in their first official tournaments.

Founded and coached by senior lecturer in English Curt Smith, the group currently has seven members. Smith, an author, award-winning radio commentator, and writer of more speeches than anyone for President George Bush, competed in public speaking in high school and college. "It's extraordinarily important for all of us, including students, to be able to verbally express ourselves," he says, adding, "Surveys increasingly show that employers and graduate schools look for the ability to communicate."

Public speaking competitions have two major categories, limited and unlimited preparation. Limited preparation involves two events: impromptu, in which students are given three quotations and have seven minutes to prepare and deliver a commentary; and extemporaneous, where students are given a topic and have a half hour to prepare a seven-minute speech to deliver before the judges.

In unlimited preparation, also known as persuasive and informative speech, students prepare and memorize in advance a 10-minute speech on a topic of their own choosing. Most of the members of the University's team compete in two events.

In Binghamton last month, David Nowak, a senior from Auburn, Wash., won the Limited Preparation Award. Four other University students-freshmen Kristie Blunt of Leawood, Kansas, Dustin Tingley of Colts Neck, N.J., and Nick Wyatt of Rockford, Ill., and junior Robert Wittmann of Las Vegas, Nev.-narrowly trailed Binghamton's winner of the Unlimited Preparation Award.

Though debating and public speaking events complement each other and develop similar skills, the competitions are totally different. Cross-examination debate, in which the University's top ranked team competes, is judged on the arguments and the volume of evidence competitors present to support their position on an issue. Debaters deliver their arguments at rapid-fire speeds to include as many points as possible. A trained ear can discern the points presented and evaluate or rebut arguments, but audience members unfamiliar with the format will find it difficult, if not impossible, to follow the arguments.

Like debate, public speaking is built on the presentation of convincing, well-constructed arguments based on research. But delivery is emphasized and students will actually be told to slow down in their weekly meetings and practice sessions.

"You have to create an interaction with your audience to be successful in public speaking, and so it's important for your audience to understand what you're saying," explains Blunt.

The audience focus is one reason why Wittmann, a junior who plans a career in law and politics, joined the team.

"This will improve my public speaking ability, which is vital in a courtroom and in expressing and passing on your ideas to the people in a democracy, " he notes. "I've gotten a lot of insight and learned how to use hand gestures and moderate my rate."

Blunt, an English major who is considering a career in either education or the law, calls the on-the-spot demands of impromptu and extemporaneous competition "one of the hardest things I've done in my whole life -- you're terrified and excited and the adrenaline is going.

"It really teaches you to think on your feet and adapt your message to your audience to create the most favorable impressions," she points out.

Quick thinking in competition is improved by a knowledge of current affairs, both Smith and the students say, and by having an understanding of issues like foreign policy and the economy. Smith subscribes to several national news magazines to keep students abreast of discussions around events like the reduction in the prime rate or John Glenn's return to space.

"Public speaking is the art of having grace under pressure; it's art, not science; poetry, not prose," says Smith, who teaches the University's public speaking class.

Public speaking has already proved advantageous for Wittmann: the junior political science major says having the activity on his resume helped him land a Congressional internship for the spring semester.

"Woodrow Wilson said, 'The man of action who will not think is dangerous. The man of thought who will not act is ineffective,' " says Smith, whose regular radio commentary for Rochester's WXXI was voted best in New York State this year by Associated Press and the New York State Broadcasters Association.

He adds, "Our team and public speaking class aim to combine thoughts and verbal facility -- reflecting substance, style, and the scholarship of this University."