Schenectady County

Mohonasen students compete for right to speak at graduation

Mohonasen seniors Rachel Lambert, Antonia Piccirillo and Simon Lange will speak at graduation after
Mohonasen High School seniors Antonia Piccirillo, 18, left, and Rachel Lambert , 18, listen to speech coach Gary Stine critique their delivery of their commencement day speeches on the main stage at Proctors Theatre Tuesday, June 10, 2014.
Mohonasen High School seniors Antonia Piccirillo, 18, left, and Rachel Lambert , 18, listen to speech coach Gary Stine critique their delivery of their commencement day speeches on the main stage at Proctors Theatre Tuesday, June 10, 2014.

Words of wisdom for commencement speakers

Gary Stine, founder of Spoken Word Solutions, offers the following advice to commencement speakers of all ages:

- Remember that the audience wants you to do well. You don’t need to earn that; the audience is in your corner and open to your message. Especially in the case of graduates speaking to their classmates, the connection between the speaker and the audience doesn’t need to be created. It already exists.

- When writing your speech, think in terms of changing a perception or behavior. Don’t simply provide information. It’s very important to have a goal in mind. This not only makes the writing process easier, but the results more impactful. Remember that you want to bring your audience to a new viewpoint; you want them to be somewhat changed after hearing your speech. You are their guide — and only you can do this!

- Students should demonstrate their passion — and this takes courage. The audience cannot feel your passion unless you are willing to show it, so let them in on who you are. Unless they can get a sense of who is standing there speaking the words, they will have no opportunity to connect with you or to truly buy into what you are saying.

Stagehands moved about the Proctors stage, preparing it for the next commencement ceremony. A photographer climbed a ladder. Out in the theater’s otherwise empty house, a professional speech coach took a seat.

At center stage, Rachel Lambert stepped up to the podium, looked out and breathed in deep.

“Members of the Board of Education, faculty and administrators, family, friends and members of the Class of 2014, welcome to the celebration of over 200 adventures,” the 18-year-old Mohonasen High School senior said, offering words that most area high school graduates have heard over the past few weeks.

After closing out her speech (“Today we celebrate our adventures, and tomorrow our sequels begin”), Lambert said she wasn’t distracted by the commotion behind her or Gary Stine, a speech coach who typically works with CEOs, watching her every move and listening in.

“Not really,” she said, “because I’m just focusing on this, so I just kind of block out everything else.”

Her classmate, Antonia Piccirillo, rehearsed her commencement speech under the same conditions and was just as focused.

“Once you start, you get into a zone,” the 18-year-old said.

Stine, who has coached speakers for 19 years and volunteered to work with the young speakers, said he was impressed with their focus, confidence and openness.

“Both of you had nothing to prove,” he told them. “You had something to express.”

Competing to speak

Lambert and Piccirillo were preparing to address the Mohonasen Class of 2014 during the 2 p.m. June 28 commencement at Proctors. They along with fellow Mohonasen senior Simon Lange will speak at graduation after they won the school’s annual speech contest.

To prepare his speech, Lange, 18, worked with Denae Hughes, a global histories teacher he had as a freshman.

“She has just always been a teacher that I’m really close with, and she’s very good at presenting herself,” he said.

For 24 years, Mohonasen has offered the chance to speak at graduation to all graduating seniors through the contest, rather than awarding the opportunity to a class president, by a vote of the students or based on GPA. Lange, Piccirillo and Lambert were the winners of this year’s contest, which saw five students compete.

“I like it because then it’s not as much as a popularity contest,” Lange said.

“I’m not a valedictorian or salutatorian,” said Piccirillo. “So it’s kind of nice that I still had that opportunity and that anybody — anybody — has the opportunity to do it. You just have to be willing to work for it.”

The speech contest doesn’t exclude the students with the top GPAs. Lambert happens to be the class salutatorian.

“It makes it even better,” Lambert said of earning her spot on the commencement program through the contest. “Like you worked to get it.”

That hard work should continue to pay off for the three Mohonasen seniors.

Lambert, who makes films in her free time, is going to New York University in the fall to study film and television.

“I just want to work in the movie industry, and you really have to express yourself and sell yourself to get work,” she said. “So you have to have confidence in yourself.”

Piccirillo said she will take what she learned from Stine with her when she attends St. John Fischer College in the fall.

“I’m going to school to be a math teacher, so I’m going be speaking every day for the rest of my life,” she said.

Lange, who is attending HVCC in the fall to study paramedics and pre-med, is also interested in politics, an area that calls for strong speaking skills. This spring, he ran for Mohonasen School Board, and nearly gained a seat by earning 643 votes.

The contest

In April, five competing students presented speeches to a group of underclassmen inside the high school auditorium, with the four judges — Albany Medical Center’s Rich Becker, CBS 6’s Steve LaPointe, Susan Whitaker of miSci (The Museum of Innovation and Science) and Erin Breslin of the Capital District YMCA — scattered throughout. The judges awarded Piccirillo the top prize, so she’ll be the keynote speaker at graduation. Lambert and Lange tied, and they agreed that Lambert would go first and Lange would close out the ceremony due to the nature of their speeches.

“I did put a lot of jokes in my speech, so it’s a very good thing to end on a very good note and have everyone laughing,” Lange said.

It used to be that the valedictorian and salutatorian would be offered the chance to speak at graduation, but those students weren’t always interested, said Tara Shellard, a Mohonasen High School English teacher who has supervised the contest for the past 10 years.

“So they decided to shift the competition, because it promoted kids who had a general interest and message that they wanted to convey to their class,” she said.

Not just the words

Stine said Mohonasen’s approach to selecting student speakers is “a good way to do it.”

“If somebody can stand up and give a speech — and that’s how they judge this — you get to see who they are,” he said. “And it’s not just the words. It’s the person delivering it, too.”

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