Saturday, April 01, 2023

The next generation speaks up

| November 20, 2022 12:00 AM

With kids constantly thumbing away on small screens, you might consider public speaking a losing art. You would be wrong.

I could hear the clamor of students inside Flathead High before I opened the door to the school a couple of Saturdays ago. Not so in the judges’ room, where adults scrawled on papers and pondered scores.

Kyla Niva, Flathead High teacher and judge wrangler for the day, said 250 judges had come to the Kalispell Kickoff to hear 353 speakers representing 15 schools from Browning to Frenchtown.

“This is the one thing I do in the kiddo range,” said Jenna Justice, another judge awaiting her assignment. A former speech competitor, she now mainly works and volunteers for an older set, such as directing the Sunshine Chorus out of the Kalispell Senior Center.

“I love public speaking,” she said. “Keynotes, conferences — that’s my jam.”

She spends three or four days annually judging young speakers, who compete in about a half-dozen categories.

“My favorite part is the mentorship aspect,” she said. She means the pink comment sheets that judges fill out after each round. After the ranking, judges list reflections in columns titled “Competitor Does Well” and “Competitor Needs Improvement.”

As a Toastmaster, I treasured the slips of paper I received after each speech. Usually anonymous, they offered suggestions, gentle criticism or observations on anything from choice of words to gesture. As they say, there’s the speech you plan to give, and the one that’s given. Hardly ever are they the same.

For my first round, I judge Original Oratory. Students waiting in the assigned room eye me and clear their throats. Soon it’s showtime, and they each take about 10 minutes on topics ranging from “The Fashion Industry and Mental Health” and “Embrace the Nerd” to “The Importance of Authenticity.” The speakers draw on research and personal experience. Some fumble their words. One does it all from memory — a born Ted Talker.

I’m struck by their confidence and ideas, such as how the love of classic rock inhibits creation of new music; people who freely admit “I don’t know” make better, more trusted leaders; and the thought that “there’s always going to be a way to find ‘you’ again.”

Six speeches later, I have pages of notes, ranking to do and pink sheets to complete. I become one of those judges in the flex space feverishly writing as if it’s a timed final exam.

It gets even harder for the semifinal, although two other judges join me (we’re not allowed to confer, however). We judge Program Oral Interpretation, which — according to our handbook — will “test a student’s ability to intersplice multiple types of literature into a single cohesive performance.”

From “Boys Will Be Boys” to “War Is Hell” and “Remember Me” to “Jealousy” the speakers weave narratives from their sources, and use props, acting and even song to make their points.

After the last speaker closes and thanks us, one of my fellow judges slips out the door shaking her head over the difficult determinations to be made.

I feel a quiet joy rising within, and remember Justice’s parting words as she went to her round: “These kids give you hope. Our future’s going to be OK.”

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at

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