Seven children took to the podium on Sunday for a 4-H competition that some fear will become a lost art.
The 4-H public speaking contest didn’t draw the biggest crowds this competition season, but parents said it was an interesting opportunity to practice communication skills in a changing world.
The 4-H Public Speaking Competition challenges students to create and deliver a timed prepared or improvised speech. Topics vary and attendees can sign up to do the prepared or on-the-fly portions.
Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler, Cole County Emergency Medical Services Chief Eric Hoy, Jefferson City Police Chief Eric Wilde and State Senator Mike Bernskoetter, of the town of R-Jefferson, judged this year’s speeches at UM’s Cole County Extension Office.
Wheeler said 4-H competitions give participants a better foundation for understanding communication and what it means to get a message across so an audience can understand and respond to it.
“You have more challenges than we ever had growing up because you have these little devices called phones and you can communicate in little segments called texts, that it’s hard to get the full message across,” said Wilde.
Matt Klumper, a father of four, said he entered his daughter into the public speaking competition to start preparing her to develop what he considers an essential skill.
“It’s something you do every day and you have to make sure you’re ahead of the field,” Klumper said.
Her daughter, Emma Klumper, was nervous. “I’m not afraid to do it, I’m afraid to mess it up,” she said.
Emma said she didn’t register for the event on her own, but practiced her speech for two hours the morning of the event.
Klumper said he thinks it’s important for younger generations to express their thoughts face-to-face, and cellphones have eroded communication skills and social etiquette for too many children.
“These kids today, that’s how they communicate,” he said of the phones. “They communicate through social media, texting or using these emojis – I have no idea what they mean – or these little acronyms, and who knows what the hell that means.”
Tim Riley, superintendent of 4-H public speaking, said the speaking event was struggling to attract new attendees.
Seven students gave speeches on Sunday, compared to 20 students who would have participated four years ago, Riley said. Two of the speakers were returning attendees and the other five were completely new to the event.
Riley said an ideal public speaking contest would have about 30 children from Cole County with 10 competing at each of the junior, intermediate and senior levels.
The number of 4-H participants declines as students graduate and newer generations don’t get involved, he said.
It’s not just the students. Riley said the statewide 4-H organization needs volunteers to help oversee and manage programming. He said there was an ongoing effort to recruit volunteers and meet growing demand in urban areas of the state.
“We went from community health clubs and large quantities to project-specific areas,” Riley said. “Shooting sports is one of our biggest programs nationally and certainly important in Cole County…but at the end of the day, keeping those other activities alive and creating those life skills is really our objective.”
Riley, who works in various roles with local 4-H clubs, said public communication is becoming a lost art despite its essential function in most professions. This year’s judges were selected because of the vital role communication plays in their fields, he said.
To expand the public speaking program, Riley said he would like to attract more home students to the organization and bring in a dedicated instructor to work with students on communication skills.
These efforts could be aided by additional state agricultural extension dollars, which fully funded both state land-grant missions for the first time this year. Those extra dollars are for agricultural extension services, which Riley said includes 4-H.