Lots of people love to talk.
Student Marlene Pierce knows how to do it well.
The senior at Kirkland-based Northwest University (NU) recently took first place for public speaking at the 2016 World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC). Along with fellow debate team member John Swayne, they travelled to Thessaloniki, Greece for the six-day championship involving nearly 400 university teams.
A Lake Stevens native, Pierce first started public speaking in theatre at age 8. In high school, she participated in the Jet City Improv long form series and currently is a member of End Scene Improv, a local Kirkland group.
“I’ve always been someone who loves telling stories and being the person on stage speaking,” she said. “I think in a lot of ways, public speaking is like an improvised debate speech.”
Before the championship, she had also participated in a competition at the University of Victoria in Canada, taking first there as well. Her experience, she said, taught her the importance of picking up on the audience’s response and adjusting accordingly.
“Part of it is that you have to be able to come up with your content fairly quickly, and you also need to be able to react to a crowd. I think one of the things improv has taught me is how to tell if the audience is buying something or not and react to the feel of the room.”
The WUDC is the largest debate competition in the world and is held annually at different locations, though having it in Athens seemed fitting for NU since it was where its debate team first competed in 1997. For Pierce, it was a second chance to enjoy the country after she was forced to leave during the 2011 riots.
“It was cool to be be back and see a little more,” she said.
Participating in the main debate event, Pierce was able to put her improv skills to work during the public speaking competition, where the 100 speakers were given their topics just six minutes before delivering a three-minute speech, which NU Debate Coach Professor Jacob Witt said “is focused on the ability to entertain and not necessarily through jokes but storytelling and adjusting to your audience on the spot.”
Luckily for Pierce, she was able to get a feel for the audience based on the response to other speakers.
“My slot was the last one so I got to watch everybody else,” she said. “Because it was an international competition it was really awesome to kind of watch all the different speakers.”
When it came time to speak on her topic, “Where would you be without debate?” Pierce drew inspiration from her high school experiences and her involvement in the debate team at NU. Her speech struck a chord with the judges, who awarded her first place.
Witt, who teaches in the English department, said that one of the things he tells the debaters is that persuasion is as important to speaking as being logical or rational.
“We talk a lot of about not making a lot of generational jokes,” he said. “Their experiences are quite a bit different. When appealing to audience it can’t just be facts and statistics. It’s about impacting the argument by making it relevant to the audience. We talk a lot about the ability to move an audience to action and it’s one of the tougher parts of persuasion, getting someone to do something more than like something on Facebook.”