Unlike most people, who fear public speaking, Emma Ohlstrom enjoys addressing an audience and sharing her thoughts with articulate enthusiasm, whether she’s giving an interview over coffee or delivering a speech in a crowded auditorium.
“I love speaking to people of all ages,” said the recent East Valley High School graduate. “I get a rush of emotion. They’re all expecting something. They want to hear what you have to say.”
This summer Ohlstrom used those skills to place second in impromptu speaking at the Future Business Leaders of America National Leadership Conference in Orlando, Fla.
“She doesn’t get nervous,” said John Twining, one of her EVHS advisers. “Most kids have a reserved fear … they have great things in their mind but can’t release it. They have external fear; it holds them back. She doesn’t have that in front of people. She’s very comfortable speaking. It’s kind of a gift she just has.”
Ohlstrom has given speeches since fourth grade, participated in debate, and represented East Valley as a 2010 Miss Spokane Valley ambassador. But when she transferred to East Valley her junior year it didn’t have a debate program. So she joined FBLA, which offered competitive speaking opportunities along with other business-oriented skill building like technology, finance, resumes and business plans.
With an eye on public speaking, Ohlstrom told FBLA advisers Brett Kiefer and Twining she planned to qualify for the National Leadership Conference in 2010. They’d never had a student make it that far.
“I’m an assertive, goal-oriented person,” she explained, adding that she lives by the motto that you can only achieve what you believe.
After spending three months writing, fine-tuning and practicing a five-minute speech, she met her goal, placing first in public speaking at the state competition and earning the opportunity to give her speech at the national conference in Nashville, Tenn.
“I said, ‘I told you I could do it,’ ” she recalled. Then she set her sights higher, determining to place at the national conference in 2011.
This June, after placing second in public speaking and first in impromptu speaking at the state level, she had to choose which event to pursue in Orlando. The top two in each event qualify. She chose impromptu, which Twining says is the more difficult event. “Impromptu is probably the hardest one of all of them to prepare for. You can’t go in and feel prepared. There are so many different topics.”
Sequestered in a room, students have 10 minutes to read a prompt, choose a side and prepare a five-minute argument. If they speak too quickly or take too long they’re docked points.
After making it to the final round with the top fifteen students, Ohlstrom said she was seven minutes into her preparation time and still didn’t know what she was going to say. She had to decide if she thought leadership was innate or learned and support her opinion.
“Everybody’s style is so different. Some don’t have much prepared and just talk. Some recite it from note cards,” Twining said. “Emma is very passionate. She is awesome about being able to pick one side or the other and use emotion.”
Ohlstrom also infuses her speeches with memorized quotes, examples and carefully chosen vocabulary to bolster her stance.
“The way we talk with words is important,” she said. “I look up different words if I want something more vibrant and colorful. I have a dictionary by my bed. The dictionary and thesaurus were the first apps I downloaded on my phone.”
For her speech, which earned a standing ovation and second place, Ohlstrom quoted John F. Kennedy saying, “We choose to go to the moon,” and talked about Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to climb Everest.
“He’s my inspiration. He pushed aside the world and what everyone said. He was born with that skill.”
It’s a skill Ohlstrom understands. “Going to nationals, a lot of people didn’t believe in me. I said, ‘I can.’ That’s why I tried so hard. I believe in myself,” she said, adding that it helped having parents and advisers who encouraged her. And she’s paid that same support forward to other students.
“She was a great kid to have in the club because she is outgoing. She did a great job of drawing other kids in,” said Twining. “It was a great experience to have a kid go to nationals.”
Now, as Ohlstrom heads to Washington State University this fall, she’s setting more goals, with plans to eventually earn a doctorate while continuing to connect with audiences. “I know where I want to end up. I can see it, but I’m trying to figure out what that is,” she said. “I want to educate myself.