The Annual Cicero Speech Contest

Reflections by Sarah Levine, BC '14

On November 18, 2013, the Barnard Speaking Fellows Program held its first annual Cicero Speech Contest in Held Auditorium, with six students participating in the persuasive category and ten students boldly competing in the impromptu category. With beloved Barnard professors, staff and alumna such as Mark Carnes, Patricia Denison, Severine Autesserre, Jennifer Fondiller, Hayden Greene, and Marilyn DeLalio on the judging panel, and high stakes for cash prizes, students arrived practiced, prepared, and eager to share their voices. This event, the first of many hosted by the Speaking Fellows, was a unique opportunity to highlight the important role that public speaking plays in activism and community engagement, and was also an opportunity for students to have some fun and have their voices heard outside of the classroom.

Despite the participants' preparation, the audience of dozens of Barnard students, friends, and family left many participants pacing the hallway with nerves and giving each other pep-talks before taking the stage. Students in the persuasive category were asked to create and deliver a speech with the aim to change an audience behavior, using a specific call to action and a plan for how to change the status quo. With that open-ended instruction, the students got to work and submitted creative topic statements that ranged from, "All drugs should be legalized" to "The United States should support democratic revolution in Tunisia." With a wide scope of material, and the limited instruction to use any and all rhetorical skills to convince the judges and audience in under six minutes, the students crafted arguments that were engaging, emotional, at times humorous and theatrical, and especially: persuasive. Before and after each speech the audience was given an opportunity to evaluate their position on each argument's proposition using an iClicker, allowing the speaker and audience to see the immediate and substantive effect that their speeches had on the community. Ultimately, despite being torn among the impressive selection, the judges selected Amanda Thum's moving argument about "becoming your most confident self" as the first-place speech, and Michal Dicker's "why public nudity should be legalized" as the second-place speech.

Students in the impromptu category were instructed only to show up, be ready to receive a prompt, and that they would have thirty minutes to prepare an original speech about their prompt. Ten intrepid students signed up and just minutes before the competition began were given their prompt: "The sky is the limit." Judges were asked to assess the speeches based on how evocative, entertaining, persuasive, and surprising they were. Students incorporated facts, fiction, moving anecdotes, personal realizations, jokes, metaphors, and aphorisms into their incredibly diverse speeches, which evoked audience reactions from "aw's" to hearty laughs. Again, the judging was not easy, but ultimately the judging panel selected Meital Sapir's speech as the winner of the category, and Alexandra Horn's won second prize.

The goal of the now-annual contest is to promote the speaking culture at Barnard, because the Speaking Fellows recognize that speech is a powerful means of intellectual expression and a tool for advocacy. This contest was a remarkable opportunity for Barnard to demonstrate that speaking well is valued, evaluated and rewarded on campus, and that students here can use opportunities like this to speak up about issues that matter to them to affect real change. Most of all, the event contributed to the overall Speaking Fellow goal to cultivate and empower a Speaking Culture on campus, by teaching students to be deliberate about what they say and how they say it. Moreover, asking the audience to identify their position on an issue before and after a persuasive speech was first-hand evidence of how persuasive argumentation makes a real difference both on and off campus.

Congratulations to all of the participants and the winners in all categories! This event was not only an exciting opportunity for students from different walks of life to engage with their peers, alumna, and professors outside of the classroom, but it set a precedent for highlighting the important role of speech in Barnard's holistic educational mission. The Speaking Fellows are overwhelmed to find that their passion for public speech and the study of rhetoric is shared by so many of their peers, and look forward to continuing the tradition of engaging the community through public speech and persuasive argumentation in the future.

Watch select speeches from the contest below: