Northwestern Speech Team Enjoys a Banner Year

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May 31, 2017

Northwestern University’s Speech Team made history this season, racking up record-breaking rankings and scores across the board.

“This year went really well for the team. We had the highest placings at nationals in about a decade,” said Ryan Lauth, School of Communication lecturer and the coach of the team. “We also scored more points than we ever had before. At every national tournament, we’ve done better than we have in the history of the team.”

In the National Forensics Association National Championship Tournament held at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in April, the team placed fifth overall, among 79 schools, their highest ranking in recent years. It was made more impressive considering that they’re competing against speech team giants with much larger teams and more resources — case in point, Western Kentucky University is the biggest team with between 40 and 45 members and 13 coaches. Northwestern had 15 members this year and one coach.

“The big difference this year was that the students worked harder than they ever worked before,” Lauth said of the program, which originated in 1995. “They made winning a goal very early on. In most years in the group, I’ll have a handful who will be really committed to the team, and another handful that are committed but don’t have a lot of time to put into speech, and usually three or four who might be just doing it for fun. But this year, everyone was 100 percent committed.”

While the University is known for its storied Northwestern Debate Society, which has won 15 National Debate Tournaments in the fast-talking field of policy debate, the Speech Team tends to fly a bit under the radar. Events that the Speech Team participates in sharpen communication, logic, and persuasion skills through public speaking, acting, reading, and interpretation. Debaters, on the other hand, argue for and against a topic that relates to United States policy. Both programs are sponsored by the School of Communcation, but are open to undergraduates across the University.

Northwestern also hosted a brand-new tournament this year, the National Speech Championship, one that aims to help smaller speech programs compete with traditional heavyweights. In the non-scholarship division of the event, Northwestern won the team national championship, with Madeline Friend, a junior, becoming the National Champion in Impromptu Speaking. Lauth also took home the 2017 National Coach of the Year award.

Hosting a new tournament was a ground-breaking event, Lauth said. “To outsiders, it might not seem like that big of a deal, but it’s been decades since there was such widespread support for a new national tournament.”

Andrea Zhang, a junior, was a fifth-place national finalist in After Dinner Speaking at the American Forensics Association National Individual Events Tournament, said she felt lucky to be part of such a unique team.

“In the past, the team has typically had a couple students who have had relatively significant competitive success, and the team has always rallied around those individuals. This year, however, we came into the competitive season with many more returning members who had experience in out-rounds (quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals) at nationals and other big tournaments,” she said. “Every single person on the team was good enough to break at nationals. Also, for the past few years he has been on the team, our senior, Kurt Imhoff, has been working to create a culture of steady, focused work throughout the season rather than just before nationals. His dedication has helped us all become more competitively successful, from top to bottom.”

Imhoff said the team is poised to do well next year, as he is the team’s only senior. He also added that the team does face a few hurdles, especially since Lauth is the only full-time coach and the team does not offer scholarships, as many other Speech programs do.

“It would be great if we could offer scholarships, because then students—especially those that have to work part-time—could focus instead on Speech,” he said. “We’d also be able to recruit more and be more in line with other programs.”

Zhang said she’s looking forward to next year.

“My biggest hope for the next season is to see the younger students really expand their skills and experience by trying many more different types of events, ideally finding new passions as well,” she said. “Ideally we can maintain our success from this season and carry it through to next year as each team member grows, even though we lack a lot of resources that larger speech programs have such as assistant coaches.”

- Cara Lockwood