The students in Ms. Queally’s 10th-grade English class know that there are a handful of historic speeches that have ascended to the level of legend—Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” address, Lou Gehrig’s farewell to baseball or Malala Yousafzai’s comments at United Nations—and they have closely studied winning speeches delivered by past Blair students. They note how all these speakers have mastered the basic techniques of skillful delivery: They pace their words, make eye contact with the audience, speak confidently and rehearse their speech thoroughly.
In examining footage of effective speeches with her class, English teacher Caroline Queally notes that one element seems to matter most: “Good speeches create audience engagement,” she says. “There are different ways the speaker can do that. You can make the audience laugh, keep them on the edge of their seat or move them with a story, but every great speech keeps the listener fully engaged.”
On April 25, 2022, Blair’s elocutionists rose to the occasion, competing in the annual rite of passage: the Sophomore Speech Contest.
Ms. Queally notes that the 10th-grade public-speaking competition is a valuable tradition at Blair. “The ability to communicate effectively, to captivate an audience, is incredibly important,” she says. “We want our students to be scholars but also just well-adjusted citizens. Communicating effectively is a life skill. Our hope is that through practice with public speaking, they gain confidence and become comfortable communicating in a public setting, so they are better prepared for the careers they’ll have when they leave Blair.”
To that end, each year, sophomores are tasked with speaking about a different topic. This spring, they were asked to choose an image and reflect on how it has impacted their life. To prepare, sophomores took part in a variety of activities. They brainstormed topics, bounced ideas off their peers, reviewed winning speeches to determine what qualities make for a good speech or speaker, and practiced before an audience—all before each class helped its teacher decide who would advance to the contest.
On April 25, the finalists from each sophomore English class approached the stage in the DuBois Theatre. One by one, they stepped into the beam of light, took a deep breath and offered inspired performances aimed at captivating the audience of faculty, staff and students. The resulting speeches varied widely—some students attempted to inform, others to entertain and still others sought to persuade the audience of the value of their image. All the orators, noted English department chair Jim Moore, made clear that their weeks of preparation had paid off. “I am always gratified when one of my former English 1 students makes it to the main event; not only am I glad to see someone with whom I've worked closely in the past on stage, but I'm always impressed by how much more thoughtful and articulate that student has become over the course of the last year.”
Having managed the event since 2016, Mr. Moore has overseen several inspiring Sophomore Speech Contests, and he knows from past experience that the deliberations that follow by a cross-disciplinary slate of judges can be intense. Facing difficult choices, this year’s five-member panel awarded first place in the contest to Arthur Huang ’24, second place to Brynne Grant ’24 and third place to Audrey Zawoiski ’24. As for the future, Mr. Moore looks forward to the continued growth of his students’ skills—and the day when the most captivating orators from Blair follow in the footsteps of King, Gehrig and Yousafzai and deliver the next speech to one day be called “legendary.”
To view this year’s winning speeches, click “play” below: