University's Speech and Debate Team thriving in national tournaments


COVID-19 has shifted many college speech and debate tournaments from classrooms and auditoriums to virtual platforms, but the venue changes haven’t rattled the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s five-member team.

While some colleges and universities are having difficulty adapting to virtual competition, the UL Lafayette Speech and Debate team is succeeding against teams from across the country, said Dr. Charles Womelsdorf, an instructor in the Department of Communication who leads the squad.

“We recently competed quote-unquote in Oregon on a Saturday, and in New Jersey on Sunday, so we went from the West Coast to the East Coast in one weekend,” he said.

The team placed fifth at a tournament hosted by the University of the Pacific on Oct. 24-25; it placed fourth at a tournament hosted by Seton Hall University on Oct. 25.

The speech and debate team’s season – and winning ways – began with a third place finish at a tournament hosted by Texas State University on Sept. 19-20. The season will end in April.

“This year has been pretty phenomenal in that you’re only seeing the elite competitors and programs that are highly motivated. Many schools and coaches are really struggling to get their kids engaged. It’s different competing in front of a camera,” Womelsdorf said.

The high overall finishes are based on the combined performances of UL Lafayette Speech and Debate team members Julia Anthon, Gabby Clewis, Abby Fontenot, Hannah B. Primeaux and Jack Smith.

The competitors have also logged strong individual performances at virtual tournaments hosted by the University of Alabama, University of Minnesota, and George Mason and James Madison universities.

Depending on their interests and strengths, team members compete in a range of categories that require a blend of skills. In addition to being confident, articulate public speakers, they must be solid researchers, strong critical thinkers and capable of delivering persuasive arguments.

“Speeches are more than just well-organized presentations. They’re an organized way of thinking out loud,” Womelsdorf said.

Informative speaking, for example, involves researching, writing and delivering a presentation to educate listeners about a topic. Persuasive speaking, on the other hand, involves trying to convince an audience to accept a particular idea, belief or opinion.

Other categories, like impromptu speaking, require agility. Competitors are given a quotation or topic. They have about a minute and a half to collect their thoughts and jot them down. They must then must deliver a 5½ minute speech – without notes.

Speech and debate competitors learn – and hone – skills that will benefit them throughout their lives and careers, Womelsdorf said. This season, that includes adaptability and resourcefulness.

In addition to perfecting timing, voice intonation and facial expressions, practice sessions can involve tinkering with lighting, devising ways to muffle echoes and measuring how far a competitor must stand from a camera.

“With Zoom, for example, camera width changes depending on the device on the receiving end. So, we have to check how students look on a laptop versus a desktop, an iPhone, a SmartPad. Judges might be using any of those.” 

The attention to detail is paying dividends, Womelsdorf added.

“I was pretty anxious before the season started, but virtual competition is proving beneficial. It’s allowing us to get all kinds of great feedback from coaches and judges from regions where there are different paradigms, different norms, different perspectives.”

View all UL Lafayette Speech and Debate Team competition results. Follow the team on its Facebook page.

Photo caption: The UL Lafayette Speech and Debate team is competing – and succeeding – in virtual tournaments hosted by colleges and universities across the country. Team members, from left to right, are: Jack Smith, Abby Fontenot, Hannah B. Primeaux, Gabby Clewis and Julia Anthon.