Speaking of success

Birdsall clinches second in original oratory at state

Robert Galbreath
Posted 5/8/24

TORRINGTON – Torrington High School (THS) junior Sarah Birdsall discovered that the high school speech and debate team and the FFA and 4-H were a great match this winter.

Birdsall grew up …

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Speaking of success

Birdsall clinches second in original oratory at state


TORRINGTON – Torrington High School (THS) junior Sarah Birdsall discovered that the high school speech and debate team and the FFA and 4-H were a great match this winter.

Birdsall grew up on the family farm in Goshen County and developed a natural passion for agriculture and livestock. 

Birdsall shows purebred Hereford cattle at county and state fairs with the local FFA and 4-H chapters and participates in the Junior Hereford Association’s national circuit. 

In high school, Birdsall competed in prepared public speaking and employment skills contests through FFA, along with livestock judging. Birdsall recently qualified to compete at FFA national tournament in employment skills.

Birdsall realized a skill for public speaking through FFA, but she never thought about joining a high school speech and debate team until THS English teacher Cathy Herstead revived the program in Torrington this year.

“Mrs. Herstead would go on the announcements in the morning urging people to come to a meeting to discuss what speech and debate is,” Birdsall said. “A few of my friends and I decided to go and see what it was about. It really stuck with me because I’ve always been someone that enjoys telling others – not necessarily my opinion, but about things.”

Speech and debate tournaments include a variety of categories, from extemporaneous speaking on current events to cross-examination debate, plus dramatic and poetry interpretation. Birdsall gravitated to original oratory, where contestants deliver an 8- to 10-minute self-written speech on a topic of interest or importance in their lives.

“Oratory is more of a persuasive speech,” Birdsall explained. “To persuade an audience, you need to have a deep passion and a fondness for what you are speaking about.”

Birdsall crafted her speech, titled, “How can we articulate the message of agriculture?” – a topic close to Birdsall’s heart – through public speaking in FFA.

While original oratory tends to be open-ended and inclusive, Birdsall found that agriculture was not familiar subject matter in the speech and debate universe. Her listeners sometimes lacked the “agricultural literacy” possessed by judges and audiences in FFA.

Birdsall stuck with the subject, however, and the choice paid off. Birdsall’s unique theme, coupled with her public speaking talents and experiences, resulted in the junior capturing second place in original oratory for the 1A/2A Division at the Wyoming State Speech and Debate Tournament in Cheyenne on March 7-9.

“It feels really good to get awarded for an activity that was just (revived) at our school,” Birdsall said. “State speech was a big highlight because I got to meet so many new people. It was definitely a different environment than FFA.”

Starting small

The 2024 THS speech and debate team consisted of three students in addition to Birdsall. Her teammate Addi Hansen competed in extemporaneous speaking while Sawyer Massie and Brody Harrison participated in duet (dramatic interpretation for two people).

The trio hope to expand the program and are looking for recruits.

“We are going to the middle school tomorrow to teach the kids about speech and debate and hopefully have some of those eighth graders join the team,” Birdsall said.

The speech team provided opportunities for Birdsall to step out of her comfort zone and gain exposure to fresh ideas. Coach Herstead encouraged the team to attend rounds in other events at the state competition, and Birdsall sat in on everything from duet to Lincoln-Douglas debate.

Birdsall is also interested in working with a new, non-agricultural topic next year. In speech and debate, the sky is the limit. Birdsall’s opponents in oratory presented on a wide range of subjects, from men’s mental health to “juvenoia” – a term for the fear expressed by older folks toward younger generations. 

“There were topics that I never would have imagined could be spoken about,” Birdsall said. “It was cool seeing everyone’s hooks and their personal stories and how they are attached to very diverse topics. There were topics that I might not have agreed with, or their perception on something was different than mine, but I thought it was cool to see how much passion someone can have for what they are speaking about.”

Birdsall is dual enrolled at THS and Eastern Wyoming College (EWC) and looks forward to taking public speaking at the community college. In 2025, Birdsall will graduate from EWC with an associate degree in business administration. Birdsall hopes to attend a four-year university or college and study business and possibly marketing or sales.

Birdsall will enter any future career with plenty of skills in persuasion and oratory.

“I definitely think doing speech and debate and FFA have helped me with my speaking skills,” Birdsall added. “I know from doing sales contests in the FFA that I have the confidence to go and talk in front of random strangers. Speech and debate also helped me with that.”

In addition to involvement in speech and debate, FFA and 4-H, Birdsall is a member of the THS Student Council, the National Honor Society and the golf team. 

Birdsall thanked her teammates on the speech and debate team, coach Herstead, her FFA advisor Jason Groene and especially her parents, who “listened to me ramble on about speech at home.”

Birdsall encouraged anyone interested in speech and debate to give the activity a try.

“Speech and debate helped me meet people from around the state who have different backgrounds than I do,” Birdsall said. “It’s been a learning experience. Spending the overnight trips for speech and debate with my teammates was definitely a plus because it was super fun.”