At West Chester University, helping students get beyond speech impediments

Mark Hickman (left) coaches Royce Peterson at West Chester University.
Mark Hickman (left) coaches Royce Peterson at West Chester University. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 05, 2013

Mark Hickman knows about speech impediments; he has a lisp.

Rather than impede him, however, that lisp helped lead him to a career in oratory. Since 1997, he has been director of forensics in the communication studies department at West Chester University, where he is in charge of its highly accomplished speech and debate units of the forensic team.

Last month, the team won the 2013 Pennsylvania Forensics Association competition, held at West Chester.

"My tongue is a little longer than normal, so it causes me to press against the back of my teeth on S sounds," he said.

The speech impediment was not apparent during an interview. Controlling it, he said, has required decades of effort.

At Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., where he earned his bachelor's degree in speech in December 1978, he got involved in forensics. "I learned how to minimize it a lot during my time on the speech team," Hickman, 55, said.

In coaching speech and debating teams, he said, he has watched others follow that path.

"I've seen students through the years on teams with speech impediments that they were working through," he said.

One student on Hickman's team with a stuttering past is Royce Peterson, 19, a freshman political science major from Upper Darby.

"It was a problem mainly from elementary to middle school," Peterson said.

"Currently, when I get really excited and angry, I do tend to stutter still."

Peterson is taking no speech courses. But he has profited from extracurricular work on Hickman's forensics team, especially in parliamentary debate.

"Mark has really helped me with personal coaching," such as at their session on Thursday afternoon.

The key advice, he said, has been to just "calm down and speak slower," especially, he said, in the parliamentary debate section of intercollegiate forensics competition.

"The end game: I want to be a lawyer."

At the February competition, the West Chester team of 15 won seven of 11 individual events, according to Hickman.

The two WCU winners in the persuasive-speaking event, he said, will be at the Interstate Oratorical Competition, sponsored by the Interstate Oratorical Association, at the Shreveport campus of Louisiana State University from April 25 to 28.

Each state is permitted to send two students to the competition, and both of Pennsylvania's will be West Chester students: Jillian Heagert, a sophomore from Glen Mills, and Dan Hinderliter, a senior from Allentown.

Hickman competed in an event in Shreveport in 1976.

He recalled that overcoming his impediment wasn't his motive for getting involved in forensics.

In his freshman year at Glenville (W. Va.) State College, he was on the speech team, he said, "first, to get over my shyness, to force myself out of my shell.

"Second, I wanted to travel. I didn't have any money.

"The national tournament was in Los Angeles," in April 1976, "and I wanted to go."

And he did.

After he transferred to Marshall University to complete his three-year degree program, "being involved in forensics - both speech and debate - literally helped me find my voice."

"I was so shy and so inarticulate and I had the speech impediment, which probably contributed to that shyness.

"And just being able to get up in front of an audience and present my ideas really was a major boost to my self-esteem," he said.

"And too, it helped me to improve my speaking. I was able to learn techniques that would minimize my speech impediment."

Even when the lisp did surface, his experiences on stage ended up working to his advantage.

"I did embrace it," he said, "and not let it get in my way."

Contact Walter F. Naedele at 610-313-8134 or

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