By Tim Linn, Assistant Director of University Relations, Rockhurst University

Photo courtesy of Rockhurst University

Photo courtesy of Rockhurst University

For many adults, the mere idea of speaking in front of an audience is enough to cause anxiety.

But for students at Rockhurst University, public speaking is not just a pre-requisite. It’s a competition — a decades-old, extemporaneous rhetorical “Thunderdome” called the Robert W. Miller Speech Contest.

Every student in every section of the University’s introductory communication course — about 160 students per semester — is eligible to participate. At the end of each semester, all members of the sections vote to send the speaker with the best persuasive speech to compete in the Miller contest: a best-of-the-best showdown in front of an audience and a judges’ panel comprised of a graduating senior, a faculty member from outside of the communication department, and a staff member.

The contest has its roots in both the original model of higher education, as well as the ancient Greek concept of the seven liberal arts, which included rhetoric. It was launched in 1975 with funding from the family of Robert W. Miller, a longtime instructor of communication at Rockhurst. Miller felt that effective public speaking was an essential skill for future student success, a building block for virtually any career. With the support of the Miller family to endow the prizes — currently $100, $50 and $25 for the three places, respectively — his passion lives on at Rockhurst.

At the end of the semester, crowds of supporters rooting for contestants gather in one of the University’s large lecture-style halls to watch the competition. Changes in technology have changed the contours of the proceedings — interactive slide presentations now often accompany student speeches, underscoring factual arguments or buttressing main points. While some may fear that these changes threaten the classical idea of rhetoric, Rockhurst faculty believe that the Miller Speech Contest still invokes the qualities on which it was founded and offers many lessons on the importance of ethos, pathos and logos in the 21st century.

Pete Bicak, Ph.D., a 24-year veteran professor of communication, says, “I always tell my students that there is something special that happens between a speaker and an audience. Otherwise, we would say what we need to say through a memo, or an email, or we would post it on Facebook. That ‘specialness’ is marked by a dialogue, not a monologue. It’s spontaneous, and sometimes the message itself is created dually between the audience and the speaker — something happens there that you don’t always get in another medium.”

Will Martel, a junior who earned first place in last fall’s competition for his speech on extroverts versus introverts, said his father is a teacher and a coach, and credits his skill in public speaking partially from observing him. Key for Martel in delivering a successful speech is establishing a rapport with those in the crowd. He says, “Once I get them to loosen up with a joke, I loosen up myself and start getting on a roll. But the biggest difference here was that people came and expected me to be good right off the bat. There wasn’t that much pressure in class.”

Just as important as delivery is topic. There are some evergreen topics for a persuasive speech, but Bicak says that students are encouraged to explore a larger palette. As a result, the speeches take on unfamiliar subjects, often from unexpected angles. “Students definitely get creative,” says Bicak.

LaKresha Graham, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication, says that some of the most memorable speeches have come from a student who argued that peanut butter and jelly was perhaps the best sandwich due to its low cost, sustainability and versatility, and another student who explained why it was a good idea to follow the 3-second distance rule when driving. Some are funny, some are serious, many are social-justice oriented. Graham says that often the most effective subjects come from experience. She says, “I tell the students to choose a topic that they know something about and are passionate about, because these things will come across when they present.”

That’s the central challenge of a persuasive speech — to connect effectively, in the moment, with an audience of mostly strangers — and it’s what makes the Miller contest exciting to watch and a privilege to participate. Getting there often involves taking extra time to perfect the argument, the outline and how it’s delivered. Sophomore Margaret Gerards won second place in the most recent competition, arguing against the industrial production of palm oil.

Gerards had experience with public speaking in high school but said that she did adjust her speech to accommodate jumping from speaking in a classroom to speaking in an auditorium. “I mainly focused on the presentation of the speech,” she says. “I wanted to ensure that I knew my material and could present the topic confidently.”

Martel says he took great care in fine-tuning his classroom speech for his competition, making each piece of information as impactful as possible. He came away from the experience with a newfound appreciation for the power of speech. “Without communication, we cannot convey what we are passionate about,” he says. “I’ve used public speaking to my advantage in multiple ways, mostly through talking to people about the things I love.”

Bicak says that’s a refrain he still hears from alumni who come back to visit, especially those who participate in the Miller contest. The skills that students learn through the process are ones that echo not only the tenets of good Ignatian conversation, but also Rockhurst’s liberal arts foundation.

“People tell me how much of an impact this had on them,” he says. “I think that says a lot about how this is a building block of what we do as an institution.”