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5 tips for youth competing in ag contests5 tips for youth competing in ag contests

Are you a 4-H or FFA member getting ready to compete in a speaking contest? This blog post is for you! Share this with youth in ag who could use this advice!

Amanda Radke

October 21, 2019

9 Min Read

Last month, I wrote an open letter to Ellen DeGeneres asking her to be on her show to talk about some of the misconceptions she shared in an Instagram video about eating meat. The letter went viral, reaching millions of people, and in the last several weeks, I’ve completed 23 media interviews talking about beef production and dispelling some common myths.

I plan to recap that experience in a blog soon, but in the meantime, it’s been so rewarding for me to hear from so many young people who want to become better agricultural advocates.

What’s more, the letter widened my reach to a much larger audience, and in the last couple of weeks, I have received countless requests from 4-H, FFA, college students and junior breed exhibitors who are preparing for upcoming speaking, job interview, sales, ag issues and other contests.

With the National FFA Convention coming up, many of these students are hoping to polish up their resumes, smooth out their sales pitches and speeches and find mentors who can coach them along the way.

Just last week for example, I had the opportunity to coach an FFA team who will soon compete in the ag sales competition at districts. Another FFA member reached out to me about preparing for the job interview competition, and I’m reviewing her resume this week. And even though I never competed in rodeo competitions, I recently coached a high school senior as she prepares for an upcoming state teen rodeo contest.

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Yet, I have to be honest with myself and so many of these young people — I don’t have the bandwidth to coach and mentor every single person who makes a request. As much as I want to help, I can probably only stick to a few local kids, or else I’m spreading myself too thin and not helping anyone at all! Even knowing my limitations, I still want to help all of these kids who have reached out as much as I can, so I’ve been brainstorming how to best serve us some advice. I figure the BEEF Daily blog is a great place to start!

Before I dive into my best tips, you should know that I loved speaking contests as a kid. I started competing in public speaking and illustrated talks in 4-H at age eight. I entered my first beef ambassador competition at age 10. And I wrapped up my youth speaking career winning the National FFA Extemporaneous Speaking Contest and the National Beef Ambassador Contest, both in 2006, as a high school senior.

Needless to say, I have a passion for these types of competitions. When it comes to the extracurriculars that have helped me in my adult life the most, it was learning how to speak, write and communicate my opinions through 4-H, FFA and beef ambassador contests, that truly impacted me the most.

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And little did I know as a 4-H kid that speaking at agricultural conferences would be a large part of my career as an adult! Next month alone, I’m slated to speak seven times at various agricultural meetings!

With all that being said, I promised youth in agriculture some advice for preparing for a contest, and I plan to deliver!

These five tips can be applied to any type of speaking competition — whether it’s auctioneering, prepared speaking, extemp, ag issues, job interview or something else entirely, here is my best advice for separating yourself from your competition:

1. Find a mentor.

Find an agricultural professional to mentor and coach you as you compete. This mentor can offer you advice on your written work and your presentation style. This individual can guide you in your professional career development and be a lifelong sounding board as you make critical decisions as you make college plans, consider job opportunities and so much more.

So how do you find a mentor? Like many of the kids who have reached out to me on Facebook and Instagram, it’s best just to find someone you admire and look up to and ASK! Don’t be shy! It’s flattering to be asked, and the worst thing that can happen is they say no. They may not have the time or resources at the moment, but you can still follow them on social media and take notes of what they do and how they do it.

And once you find a mentor, keep in touch with them as you make strides towards your goals. Job shadow them if possible and offer them value by helping them in their work as needed! And be sure to listen carefully, and show you pay attention to their advice by taking notes and following through.

I’ve learned a lot from mentors over the years. I learned at age 10 how to shake hands firmly while making eye contact from a cattle woman who listened to one of my speeches and came to introduce me after. My handshake was weak, and my voice quiet, and she corrected me right away. I never forgot that lesson.

Later, I learned from mentors how to answer job interview questions, how to lead a media interview and not just let the reporter dictate what I talk about and how to write up a contract for a speaking event. These relationships are valuable, and I can’t stress enough how important a role model and mentor can be for a young person as they go through life.

2. Practice makes perfect.

Get yourself in front of a mirror and PRACTICE! Take note of your hand gestures, your posture, your eye contact. Critically evaluate your presentation style and be aware of what you do well and what you could work on. Then get stronger overall, correcting those weaknesses as much as you can while strengthening what you do great already!

Once you’ve developed confidence in your presentation, it’s time to go practice in front of others. This is where initiative kicks in because these opportunities don’t just walk up in front of you. It takes some coordination.

As a kid, I often practiced in front of the local Toast Masters club. I also reached out to professionals in my community to practice my speeches or to do mock interviews with where they would ask me potential questions. Before I went to my last National FFA Convention, I practiced my extemporaneous speaking competition by walking through the entire process — from drawing a random topic out of a hat, to writing the speech and presenting it in the allotted time — in my dorm room in front of some of my friends.

By practicing often and in front of a wide range of audiences, you get different types of feedback and critiques. While you don’t have to apply them all, the advice can help shape your style and help you be aware of presentation ticks you weren’t aware of.

And don’t just practice your speech. Anticipate which questions the judges or interviewers may ask you. Not everything needs to be canned, but you should have some talking points you want to cover. Make sure you weave these points into your answers, and you’ll be ready no matter which

3. Command the stage.

You know the phrase, “Fake it until you make it?” This applies true to competing in contests. You may be nervous. You might be rattled about questions. You might be scared you’ll mess up. But the judges don’t have to know any of this!

Before the contest, be focused and clear your head of distractions. Sometimes ready rooms can be really social, but you can make friends after you compete. Before you enter a room, you should be mentally preparing yourself to command the stage.

Then enter a room with confidence, energy and a strong voice. I’m an introvert, by nature. I’m a homebody, have a small group of friends and am relatively private, but when I go to do a speech, I “turn it on” and exude energy that doesn’t just make my speech better, but it also requires the audience to wake up and pay attention.

Think of it this way, sometimes a speaker will come up and apologetically say they aren’t great at public speaking. You may feel that way on the inside, but if you go out with pretend confidence, the audience won’t know the difference.

Oh, and ditch the notecards! That little security blanket can be the difference between winning and being edged out by your competition!

Step onto the stage or the interview and command a presence that can’t be ignored! And if you’re having trouble with this, go back to step two and keep practicing!

4. Triple check your work.

Nothing can send an interview or a speaking contest to a crashing halt faster than a spelling or grammatical error in a cover letter, resume or competition document. Look over your work many times, and have others review and edit, as well. It’s very easy to miss a mistake, and that can cost you points in a contest or in life!

A great example of this is this year I hired my first intern to help me out with administrative tasks for both my communications business and our ranch enterprise. I had many candidates apply, and one was a recent agricultural communications college graduate whose email to me was riddled with spelling errors! To be honest, I couldn’t consider her as a potential intern because I didn’t want to end up redoing her work if she were to be hired!

5. Put 110% into it.

I always looked at competitions like this — your peers can be sorted out into thirds. One-third of the kids are there just to have fun; the middle third wants to compete but didn’t do anything special ahead of time to prepare; the top third went the extra mile (finding a mentor, practicing, etc.).

To get yourself in the top third, do steps 1-4 (and repeat) until the day of the contest. Then go out and be your authentic self and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. If you have put 110% into your work ahead of time and you do your very best that day, great! If you end up winning, that’s amazing; your hard work paid off. But even if you don’t win and you still put your heart and soul into it, then you should have no regrets. If you did your absolute best, then it’s time to learn from the experience, find out what separated the winner from everyone else and go apply what you’ve learned for the next time.

Now I realize this is pretty broad advice and it’s a deviation from my normally covered topics, but I hope some agricultural youth and young professionals find it useful anyway. If you have kids, grandkids, a local 4-H club or FFA chapter who could use this advice, please forward this blog on to help them out!

By doing this, we will further develop our next generation of food producers and help them to go onto be successful, confident, knowledgeable adults with skills earned from competing, studying, learning, exploring, networking and more!

Good luck to all of the kids competing at the National FFA Convention coming up! Win, lose or draw, this is an amazing experience that will offer you lessons to last a lifetime!

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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