The average American speaks around 10,000 words per day, and for years the University of Richmond’s Weinstein-Jecklin Speech Center has helped students examine how and why these words are said. Recently, however, the speech center has shifted its focus to some unexpected pupils: area middle school students and Richmond’s championship football team.
Speaking for Yourself

“It all started with a proposal submitted by Megan McNamara, a student in the course that trains future speech center consultants,” said Linda Hobgood, Director of the Speech Center. “She read in Artes Liberales about a few alumni who were trying to help out at a school called Church Hill Academy. They aimed to make the students ready for work or for higher education.

“Church Hill is a private school in the east end that serves what you might call high-risk students, students who for whatever reason have not been served well by public school.”

McNamara thought the Speech Center should help the students improve their speaking skills, but also hoped to positively impact their overall quality of education.

“We’ve been trying for awhile to forge a relationship with the school, but not until this year did we find three students, Brian Agnis, Megan McNamara, and Elizabeth Moore, who had some time and had a way of getting to Church Hill Academy,” Hobgood said.

One of the team’s biggest obstacles was convincing the Church Hill students that public speaking is important—because they didn’t have an audience.

The speech consultants decided to take an assignment from the Business and Professional Speech class that Hobgood teaches. The Church Hill students were going to each produce a scaled-back version of a blog and include video-clips of them speaking.

“We had the students achieve a certain grammatical competence and refined prose style, essentially what you should expect from a high school student, and then we would add video clips,” Hobgood said. “They would go from having no one as their audience to having the world as their audience.

“I went out in November for the first time to meet the students. One of the girls, well, it wasn’t that hard to understand her, but it might have been hard for some. When you see this blog, she talks all about what Churc Hill Academy has done for her life.

“She discusses why it’s so important to be a success in life, and by success she means not being on drugs, not being pregnant. It isn’t that someone fed her those lines; you can tell they come straight from the heart.”

As many as five blogs will soon be published.

Hobgood said it’s taken hours of work, but the idea is that maybe—when the clips are loaded onto the blogs, even though they’re not perfect, it will inspire the students to continue their studies.

“Maybe they’ll watch those clips and think, I want to sound better than that,” Hobgood said. “Maybe they will work on their own speaking, and they’ll have gone from having no one as their audience, to the world as their audience and then to having themselves as their audience.”

If it hadn’t been for Megan’s proposal, and Brian and Elizabeth willing to put so much time into the program, none of this would have happened, Hobgood said.

“The three Richmond students all greeted this assignment the way so many college students do: I am going to do outreach, it’s all about what I can do for the community,” Hobgood said. “But they come out of it saying, ‘I had no idea how much I was going to get out of this, I received so much more than I gave.’”

Hobgood said that when she first arrived at Church Hill Academy in November, the first thing the students asked was if any of the consultants were football players.

“‘Well as a matter of fact, one of them is!’ I told them,” Hobgood said.

When Brian, an offensive lineman for the Spiders, first visited the school the students all ran up to him and bombarded him with questions about the team, Hobgood said.

Inspired by his work with the students, Brian would incorporate the speech center into yet another aspect of his Richmond life.

Speaking for the Team

“When it came time for Brian to submit his proposal about something the Speech Center could do to help people, he chose something unique,” Hobgood said. “He said that the school ought to be cautious of the image the university of Richmond projects, in the community and beyond, and we should look to who casts that image a lot.

“He pointed out that among the student body, that image was often represented by the athletes, and of the athletes, the winning football team.”

Because the football team had done so well in 2008, Brian suggested that a lot of players were especially apt to be interviewed. He wanted to ask Coach Mike London to select those players that would be most sought after by the press, Hobgood said, and teach them how answer questions appropriately.

“It was tough because we had to do it in the summer before their season, when we didn’t have a lot of other speech consultants to help out,” Hobgood said. “And while the players were focusing on the gridiron, we were trying to get them to focus on eloquence and grace.”

Brian wrote the questions, Hobgood said, and then had two other consultants perform the interviews with the selected players. Brian watched it all on a closed circuit television in an adjoining room.

“He didn’t think the players would take him seriously if he asked them questions,” Hobgood said. “So he came in afterwards with the recordings and critiqued them.”

At the last team meeting of the summer, Coach London invited Hobgood to review the recorded questions and answers with the whole team.

“Coach London was wonderful,” Hobgood said. “He was so animated, he would go, ‘Oh, hmm, not bad.’ Or ‘Oh no please don’t say that to the press!’ It was just wonderful. No one had planned for his animation, for his histrionics if you will, but they added so much.”

The aspect of the program that Hobgood says she enjoyed most was the fact that that the players were teaching each other about the importance of public speaking.

“The best effect of that film had to have been that the team realizing that when you’re speaking, you’re not speaking for just yourself,” Hobgood said. “You’re representing the coach, the team, the school, and it really matters what you say.

“You can raise the integrity, the character, the prestige and the esteem people have for the school, or you can dash it all in one answer to a simple question. Those questions don’t get asked of the players when they are calm and cool and collected. It’s at the end of the game, win or lose, when they are tired and worn out and maybe happy, ecstatic, to the point of not being in control of their words. Or they’re so low that they can’t think of a single good thing to say.”

It’s the excitement of the moment they need to be prepared for, Hobgood said, because they’re always speaking for the team. They finally realized that it matters, and that was the whole point of the exercise.

Hobgood said that she stayed up watching the late night news to see some of the players being interviewed by the press, and they all did just fine.