By Sarah Gu (III)

On February 26, students and faculty alike were enthralled by the annual Robert H. Lebow Oratorical Competition. The assembly is held by William Hetfield (‘58) and the Pingry Class of 1958 in honor of Dr. Robert Lebow. After a closed-audience preliminary round, the larger Pingry community had the opportunity to listen to the six finalists. 

Elspeth Campbell (V) won the competition, with a speech that analyzed the use of one’s voice for the common good; she drew inspiration from a New York Times article and the Capitol riots. Campbell used her speech as “a means for me to process everything that was happening and interpret all these types of events.” While writing, she “wasn’t even sure I was going to enter the competition,” as she had never written a speech before.

Martine Bigos (V) was named the runner-up of this year’s competition, after having been named a finalist last year. “It definitely feels pretty surreal,” she said, “But it actually doesn’t feel different for me each year. I was just as nervous the second time as I was the first time.”

As mentioned in her speech, Bigos’ brainstorming process was self-referential. She had initially written a speech that felt ingenuine: “I kept telling myself that you have to write something that’s going to win because I felt this pressure to win. Then, I realized that it was an absolutely garbage reason to want to do the competition.” Thus, she then decided to write about losing sight of passion and participating in activities solely for the sake of college.

Campbell took a different approach while preparing her speech: she never voiced her speech aloud until the preliminary round, out of respect to her parents at home. Instead, she mouthed the words and practiced her delivery, as she read her speech over and made edits. Her rhetoric was inspired by Barack Obama’s speechwriters; she noted, “As I was writing, I was also learning the skill of oratorical delivery.” 

As Campbell did, Bigos also edited her speech while preparing her delivery. She noted that “the writing process doesn’t necessarily stop once you rehearse the speech.”

Additionally, both contestants expressed the competition’s impact on their futures. Campbell noted the competition was “a necessary way to overcome that fear [of public speaking],” especially in order to develop that skill for her future career. Bigos also found the experience challenging and, conversely, did not see herself public speaking as a profession. “For me, the reason I was really interested in the competition was writing an original speech,” she said. Nevertheless, Bigos believes the process will push her to reach greater heights.

As for advice to future LeBow competitors, Campbell emphasized the importance of taking the audience into consideration. To her, a successful LeBow speech employs the strategy of “tak[ing] larger scale issues and refram[ing] them in the context of Pingry.”

Bigos’ tips included the following: slow down, avoid eating before speaking, drink lots of water, and take deep breaths. In terms of advice, she said, “If you’re interested, but the public speaking part is getting in the way of deciding whether or not you want to sign up, just realize it’s going to be okay at the end of the day.” Bigos affirms that the process will be rewarding no matter what, as “getting to talk to people after you give your speech is one of the best feelings because it is so fulfilling to know that what you say impacts somebody.”