Speech contest revived after half-century hiatus

MIDDLEBURY — The year was 1825. John Quincy Adams had just been sworn in as the sixth U.S. president, and the Erie Canal had just opened. And at Middlebury College, the first annual “Parker Merrill Speech Competition,” a contest designed to help undergraduates excel at public speaking, was held.
The competition — founded by Middlebury’s first professor, Frederick Hall, and named in honor of a benefactor and a former college pastor — was for decades held in the Congregational Church of Middlebury and emerged as one of the most popular town-gown events, according to Dana Yeaton, renowned local playwright and visiting assistant professor of theater at the college.
Area orchestras were invited to perform in between as many as 16 student speeches, which in the early days tended to be borrowed from the texts of literary and political icons. During the 1940s, competitors began writing their own speeches.
“It was a big cultural event,” Yeaton said.
But in 1965, the speechifying came to an abrupt and mysterious end. Perhaps the students of that era felt more inclined to do their talking at demonstrations against the escalation of the Vietnam War and in favor of the Civil Rights movement. Either way, the Parker Merrill Speech Competition went on what would become a half-century hiatus.
That hiatus ends this Friday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m. in the college’s Dana Auditorium.
That’s when six student finalists in a revived competition will deliver speeches of up to six minutes, embracing a common theme: “True North: A Principle to Guide Us Through Troubled Times.” Those six finalists — pared down from an original field of 24 — will deliver original material without notes, props, charts or a podium, and they’ll be expected to do it in a manner that captivates, inspires and educates the assembled crowd.
Credit for bringing back the Parker Merrill Speech Competition goes to “Oratory Now,” a student organization formed in 2014 with the mission of cultivating the art of public speaking among the undergraduates.
Underwritten through the Ron and Jessica Liebowitz Fund for Innovation, Oratory Now is directed by Yeaton. The organization trains students in public speaking techniques and pays them to impart those skills to other students and teachers — individually, or in classes — throughout the campus. Students go through nine hours of training to become certified speaking coaches.
“These are generally students who want to work on their own speaking, and that’s a big part of the training,” Yeaton said. “We also work on the teaching part of it, which I think is a great way to learn something.”
Oratory Now members reasoned that their mission should include bringing back the speech competition.
“We are hoping it becomes our signature event of the year,” said Yeaton, coordinator of the contest. “We are making a big deal of reviving this tradition.”
He is getting a huge assist in the contest re-boot from Middlebury College student Mariah Levin, one of this year’s leading speech coaches.
“I’ve found from my own experience that the simple act of having done it a couple of times without falling on your face is so rewarding,” Levin said of public speaking. “It gave me so much confidence when I was starting.”
Students who take the stage on April 29 have already run the gauntlet of elimination rounds. They also have all benefited from solid coaching — including from former Vermont governor and 1972 Middlebury alumnus James Douglas. The Middlebury Republican is serving as a script consultant to the finalists.
An executive in residence at the college since January of 2011, Douglas has been a valued mentor and teacher to students interested in politics, history and the mechanics of state government. He also wrote, and co-authored, many speeches during his more than 35 years in state politics.
He was happy to participate in the revival of the speech competition.
 “Public speaking is a key ingredient in many fields: public service, to be sure, but also business, education and other kinds of jobs,” Douglas said in an emailed response to the Addison Independent. “It’s important, then, that students hone their skills early. I’m delighted that Prof. Yeaton has reintroduced the competition. It’s exciting to see Middlebury students develop an ability to express themselves articulately and hold the attention of the audience. It’ll serve them well in whatever they decide to pursue.”
Each of the 24 contestants gave an initial speech that was evaluated by student judges through Oratory Now. Twelve of those competitors went on to a semifinal round on April 14 judged by three faculty members.
Those judges chose the six finalists: sophomores Peter Dykeman-Bermingham, Tabitha Mueller, and Dominick Tanoh; first-year students Nia Robinson and Briana Garrett; and senior August Hutchinson. A panel of Middlebury alumni judges will pick a winner and runners-up on April 29. First place carries a prize of $500, with second and third place awarded $250 each. Yeaton said a people’s choice winner will also be named.
Competitors have picked interesting topics for their respective speeches, according to Yeaton and Levin. Compassion, a commitment to learning and the science of smiling are examples of the focal points of the student speeches.
“What I think is fun and intriguing about having original content is that it has the potential to address issues of the time,” Levin said. “There’s all these conversations on campus … that are high in tension. Our hope with the prompt is to say, ‘What is this principle we can say can help us get along, make things better when times are hard.’”
Yeaton said race, ethnicity and inclusivity are among the topics that have generated some of the most intense debate that he has seen during his 20 years on the college faculty.
Judges will rate the speeches based on the “five canons of rhetoric,” according to Yeaton. They include memory, delivery, style, arrangement and invention.
 “It’s live, so anything can happen,” he said.
And this updated version of the Parker Merrill Speech Competition will feature a new twist. It’s called ‘PowerPoint Roulette.” Pairings of students and faculty members will be solicited from the audience to speak, on the spot, about seven different slides that will pop up on a screen during the course of 2.5 minutes.
The speakers will have never seen the images before. They might include a cat, a pie chart with no info, a random phrase, and/or a pencil. The four, two-person teams will have to instantly invent dialogue to explain the images.
“It’s an impromptu speaking game,” Yeaton said. “You’re on your own.”
Organizers hope the competitors and spectators appreciate the value of public speaking as they watch it in action on Friday.
“There’s a whole industry around public speaking,” Yeaton said. “You might get the interview on paper, but you get the job in person.”
Admission to the April 29 competition is free. More information about the event can be found at sites.middlebury.edu/oratorynow.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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