When the Washington Post reported in 2014 that Americans fear public speaking more than heights, bugs and needles, it came as no surprise to many. The fear of public speaking is common, and as many as one in four Americans report experiencing anxiety when presenting before an audience.
A Physiological Challenge
Winner of two public-speaking contests on the hilltop, Blair alum Lily Starrs ’21 understands that fear. “The first time I approached the podium in the DuBois Theatre,” she remembers, “my heart was pounding, my hands grew sweaty and the voice that came out sounded too high to be mine.” Though she didn’t recognize it at the time, Lily’s hypothalamus had likely activated, triggering the release of adrenaline that contributes to stage fright. Experts say public speakers’ hesitancy often arises from a lack of experience communicating with a crowd.
Blair has long held that introducing public speaking at a young age has value and can ease the nervousness some new speakers experience. During the last century, for instance, Blair students wanting to improve their public-speaking skills joined the Webster Society and delivered a certain number of mandatory speeches per year. AP psychology teacher Shelly Mantegna explains that such repeated exposure—providing opportunities to practice an activity in small increments—is a classic psychological technique used to help overcome fears. “I’ve had students say that they are not comfortable presenting in front of the class,” Mrs. Mantegna recalls, “and, when that happens, I’ve had them start by presenting at their desk. Then, for the next presentation, they stand in front of the class, until, eventually, they progress to the stage.”
For Blair’s current seniors, the speech contest is the culmination of four years of practicing the art of effective communication as Blair teachers created opportunities across departments for students to practice what they’ve learned and get better at it. Dean of Academics Nathan Molteni explains, “We try to make both formal speech giving and the application of storytelling a regular part of the learning experience here.”
In the classroom, that might mean participating in the recent two-day Global Issues debate or making a public presentation of one’s research proposal for Integrated Science Research class. On the field, it might mean standing up as a captain and addressing the team. Whether sharing thoughts with classmates while delivering a Chapel talk, making announcements to the student body at weekly School Meetings, or orating before an auditorium of parents and judges in the School’s speech contests, Blair students have ample opportunities to put what they’ve learned into action.
‘A Culminating Moment’
Blair’s annual rite of passage, the senior speech contest, comes as the culmination of those years’ of conditioning. For this year’s competition, students in AP English drafted remarks on a topic of their choosing and presented the finished product to their classmates. The top speakers from each class then advanced, going head-to-head on May 16 at Blair’s annual Senior Public Speaking Contest. Under the lights of the DuBois Theatre, the finalists covered a wide variety of topics including the human heart and tattoos, the life lessons to be gleaned from buying a prom dress and the importance of appreciating your family. Several students modeled both vulnerability and courage, sharing their stories of triumph over challenging medical diagnoses and trauma.
A panel of faculty judges chose the winning speakers and announced their names at School Meeting on May 20: Duc Dinh ’22 received first prize, Megan Donaghy ’22 received second prize, and third prize was awarded to Sofia Ciminello ’22.
Dean of Academics Nathan Molteni sums up what he appreciated most about this year’s speeches: “It was a culminating moment for the senior class, one of the last shared academic experiences of the year,” he says. “I enjoyed hearing students’ stories come full circle—as they start with the leadership video in ninth grade and finish with these final speeches. In its best moments, the speeches offer us a unique window into the life of a senior, getting to know them in a new way even as they are preparing to depart from the community. That makes their willingness to share freely of themselves all the more appreciated—leaning in at a time when they are also beginning their transition to the next steps in life.”
Now at Brown University, Lily has left her racing heartbeat behind and hopes that this year’s senior speech winners come away from the public-speaking competition sharing her experience: “I used to think that speaking in front of the School would go down as one of my most terrifying experiences at Blair, but, looking back, it was actually one of my most fun and rewarding experiences—and one that has set me up best to succeed in college. Congratulations to this year’s winners!”