Seven children took to the podium Sunday for a 4-H competition some worry is becoming a lost art.
The 4-H public speaking contest didn’t draw the biggest crowds this contest season, but parents said it was a meaningful opportunity to practice communication skills in a changing world.
The 4-H Public Speaking Contest challenges students to create and deliver a prepared or impromptu speech on time. The topics vary and participants can sign up to do prepared pieces or on the fly.
Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler, Cole County EMS Chief Eric Hoy, Jefferson City Police Chief Eric Wilde and state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, judged this year’s speeches at the MU Extension Office of Cole county.
Wheeler said 4-H competitions provide participants with a better foundation in understanding communication and what it means to convey a message to an audience that can understand and respond to it.
“You have more of a challenge than we ever had growing up because you have these little devices called phones and you can communicate in little segments called texts, which is hard to get the whole message across,” Wilde said.
Matt Klumper, a father of four, said he enrolled his daughter in the public speaking competition to begin preparing her to develop what he believes is an essential skill.
“It’s something you’re doing every day and you’ve got to make sure you’re ahead of the field,” Klumper said.
His daughter, Emma Klumper, was nervous. “I’m not afraid to do it, I’m afraid to mess up,” she said.
Emma said she didn’t register for the event herself, but practiced her speech for two hours the morning of the event.
Klumper said he thinks it’s important for younger generations to express themselves face-to-face, and cell phones have eroded communication skills and social etiquette for 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 these things mean.”
Tim Riley, 4-H public speaking supervisor, said the speaking event is trying to attract new participants.
Seven students gave speeches Sunday, while 20 students would have attended 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 competition would bring together about 30 children from Cole County and 10 would compete at each of the junior, intermediate and senior levels.
4-H participation numbers are slipping as students graduate and younger generations fail to get involved, he said.
It’s not just the students. Riley said the statewide 4-H organization needs volunteers to help oversee and run programming. He said there is an ongoing effort to recruit volunteers and meet the growing demand in urban parts of the state.
“We’ve gone from community health clubs and bulk to now we’re getting down to specific project areas,” Riley said. “Shooting is one of our biggest programs statewide and obviously huge in Cole County… but at the end of the day, keeping those other activities alive and building those life skills, that’s really our goal.”
Riley, who holds a variety of roles within local 4-H clubs, said public communication is becoming a lost art despite its critical function in most professions. This year’s judges were chosen because of the vital role communication plays in their fields, he said.
To grow the public speaking program, Riley said she would like to attract more homeschoolers to the organization and bring in a dedicated instructor to work with students on communication skills.
Those efforts could be aided by additional agricultural extension dollars from the state, which fully funded the state’s two land-grant missions for the first time this year. Those extra dollars are earmarked for agricultural extension services, which Riley said includes 4-H.