OKLAHOMA CITY—If 2020 were a normal year, the American Farmers & Ranchers/Oklahoma Farmers Union (AFR/OFU) Cooperative would be planning its annual AFR Youth Speech Contest. Agriculture students statewide would be preparing their speeches in hopes of high judges’ marks and first place trophies. But, this is not a normal year.

This year, concerns of Covid-19 exposure, coupled with potential venue closures, caused the contest to be canceled for the first time in 75 years. In its place, AFR/OFU has created a new professional development opportunity for students statewide.

The “Mastering the Art of Public Speaking” (MAPS) video series fulfills the AFR Youth Speech Contest mission to encourage young Oklahomans to hone their public speaking ability through speeches about agriculture, natural resources, policy and science.

“Public speaking is an indispensable skill students use throughout their lives,” said AFR/OFU Cooperative President Scott Blubaugh. “We’re very proud of the AFR Speech Contest and what it’s done to foster professionalism and confidence in Oklahoma’s youth. It was an extremely difficult decision to cancel this year’s competition, and we knew we had to do something in its place. So, we decided to designate 2020 as the ‘Year to Teach.’”

Last fall, nearly 500 students, grades 4-12, competed in district AFR Speech Contests across Oklahoma in hopes of making it to the state competition. The 2020 AFR Speech Contest is just one of many extracurricular events that have been canceled this year due to the pandemic. As AFR/OFU watched more and more professional development opportunities either cancel or postpone, it became clear something had to be created to replace this year’s canceled speech contest.

“These students are involved in FFA and 4-H because they want to better themselves and be prepared for college or the work force,” said AFR/OFU Interim Youth Coordinator Jim Pilkington. “They’re ready and willing to learn, but the opportunities for professional development have been slim in the last few months.”

In response to the gap in opportunity, AFR/OFU commissioned the MAPS public speaking tutorials to help students hone their skills and prepare for future contests. The videos were created by two nationally-recognized public speakers—Rhett Laubach and Kelly Barnes—who are well-versed in the type of speeches needed to excel in FFA and 4-H contests.

The 12-part video serious covers all facets of a successful speech, including choosing a topic, conducting research, outlining, writing, voice quality, facial expressions, body movements and how to answer questions following a presentation. There’s even a segment on proper speech judging techniques and how to provide constructive criticism.

“While event cancelations have been disheartening, they’ve provided an opportunity for us to redirect resources into projects that are going to stand the test of time and be beneficial to students for years to come,” said Blubaugh.

The videos were created with two purposes in mind. First, they’re designed to be used as a guide for students who have never prepared or given a speech. Some students do not have access to speech advisors who can properly train them for contests. The videos are intended to help students prepare a speech even without outside assistance.

Second, the videos are intended to be a new tool to help students hone existing public speaking skills. The tutorials can be worked through like a checklist with students comparing their current work against that of the public speakers in the videos.

“We’ve seen this need for a long time,” said Blubaugh. “We’re thrilled to be able to offer both underserved students and up-and-coming public speaking champions a tool that will help them work through the many aspects of public speaking.

“This tool is something we intend to maintain and update regularly. It will help build public speaking skills in Oklahoma youth for years to come.”

The AFR Speech Contest is just one of many AFR Youth Program traditions. The organization also hosts a youth leadership summit, statewide scholarships, livestock judging and grading competitions, and many other development opportunities. For more information on the AFR Youth Program, visit the AFR/OFU Cooperative website at www.afrcoop.org.

The MAPS video series will be provided statewide to all 4-H, FFA, and homeschool groups and nationally to National Farmers Union (NFU) and state Farmers Union groups across the country. Individual students will also have access to the tutorials through the AFR/OFU Cooperative. For more information about the MAPS video series, including how individuals can access the recordings, contact AFR/OFU Interim Youth Coordinator Jim Pilkington at (918)830-0017 or jim.pilkington@afrmic.com.

AFR/OFU Cooperative is a membership services organization established in 1905 as Oklahoma Farmers Union. AFR/OFU provides educational, legislative and cooperative programs across the state and serves as a watchdog for Oklahoma’s family farmers and ranchers and rural communities. The organization is actively supportive of the state’s agricultural industry and rural population with membership consisting of farmers actively involved in production agriculture and non-farmers adding their voice in support of AFR/OFU principles.