There is an art to public speaking, and the nationally recognized Marshall High School speech program has helped develop many top-notch speakers in the past few years, including Marshall native Jenna Surprenant, who used the power of persuasion to claim a national championship at the 2011 American Forensics Association National Individual Events Tournament this past month in Kearney, Neb.
Surprenant, a sophomore, became the 28th national champion in forensics for Kansas State University.
"There's roughly 150 people in every single category at nationals," Surprenant said. "So just being in the top six was an honor. I put in the hard work and believed I could win, but I never really expected the dream to become a reality so quickly."
Jenna Surprenant was named a national champion at the 2011 American Forensics Association National Individual Events Tournament in Kearney, Neb.
At the most prestigious and toughest collegiate competition, Surprenant survived three elimination rounds to make the top 24. Then she advanced to the semifinals and eventually found herself among five other competitors in the persuasive speaking finals.
"It was very overwhelming so I tried to forget that I was competing," Surprenant said. "Every time I'd think about being in the top 24 or the top 12, I'd get excited. When you're too excited, you rush your speech."
Her emotions finally got the best of her at the awards ceremony after she realized she was the only one left standing and everyone was applauding for her.
"It was so overwhelming, I cried," she said.
Current head MHS speech coach Rick Purrington said he always believed that the sky was the limit for Surprenant.
"There's no one who loves the competition of speech or is more focused on what she needs to do to be an excellent speaker than Jenna," Purrington said. "If you add Jenna's drive and determination with her intellect and poise, and then have some of the best collegiate coaches in the nation guiding her, it isn't surprising that she's been incredibly successful at the collegiate level."
College forensics is a year-round activity, Surprenant said, so commitment is crucial.
"Beginning in November until April, we're competing every weekend," she said. "We leave Friday after classes and travel, get up at 5 a.m. Saturday and compete all day. On Sunday, we do the exact same things and then get back really late. We go to classes Monday morning and do it all over again the next Friday. But it's definitely a passion of mine."
Surprenant's winning speech was about strategic lawsuits against public participation - SLAPP suits - which pose a threat to First Amendment free speech rights. She also had four other events qualify for nationals.
"Not only does forensics shape your public speaking skills, it makes you become a better citizen," Surprenant said. "When you sit there every weekend and hear different topics and points of view, it forces you to think outside of the box and find the issues you really care about."
Alex MacArthur said that the MHS speech program laid a good foundation for him to succeed in forensics at Concordia College in Moorhead. MacArthur, a junior, took the maximum number of speeches to the AFA-NIET this year.
"Six categories sounds like a lot, but if you don't do that many, you find yourself bored at college meets," MacArthur said. "Speech has really taught me the difference between writing to be heard and writing to be read. Learning how to master that has been beneficial. It helps me articulate exactly what I want to say."
Next season, MacArthur will be the president of the Cobbers forensics team.
"It's going to be sad to see my career end," he said. "The community and college speech scene is a very tight-knit group. There's always the chance that I could coach speech part-time at a high school and I'd love to be a judge."
Purrington keeps a close eye on MacArthur's success at Concordia, where Purrington also found national forensics success at.
"Alex has done a great job continuing the strong tradition and reputation of Concordia forensics and that means a lot to me," Purrington said. "He's a super-bright, super-talented speaker who deserves to be a part of a great program."
Another Marshall native, Molly Carmody, said that forensics has given her the confidence to be the person she wanted to be.
"Marshall has a really great legacy of developing competitors that not only compete at the high school level, but at the college level as well," said Carmody, currently a senior at Minnesota State-Mankato. "I spent a decade doing forensics speaking, and it feels weird to be done. It's something I loved doing. But now I'm on to bigger and better things."
In addition to competing nationally, Carmody has worked on campaigns for President Obama and Tim Walz. Now she is waiting to hear from law schools.
"I started looking at the law when I was 11," Carmody said. "I got to watch a mock trial and I fell in love with it. I was a painfully shy child, but my mom said to try it. Forensics taught me how to talk and hold myself and allowed me to continue on with my dream."
The MHS program has nurtured other quality competitors before Surprenant, MacArthur and Carmody, and there will be many others who will likely follow in familiar footsteps since the opportunity to succeed is there. But it's up to each individual to take advantage of that opportunity. Although she already has a national title, Surprenant - who wants to be a university professor of communications someday - plans to continue challenging herself.
"I'm already working on next year's speech," she said.