There are two essential qualifications for making an effective public speech.
First, having something worth-while to say.
Second, knowing how to say it.
The first qualification implies a judicious choice of subject and the most thorough preparation. It means that the speaker has carefully gathered together the best available material, and has so familiarized himself with his subject that he knows more about it than anyone else in his audience.
It is in this requirement of thorough preparation that many public speakers are deficient. They do not realize the need for this painstaking preliminary work, and hence they frequently stand before an audience with little information of value to impart to their hearers. Their poverty of thought can not be long disguised in flamboyant rhetoric and sesquipedalian words, and hence they fail to carry conviction to serious-minded men.
I would remind you that having something worth-while to say involves more than thorough preparation of the particular subject which the speaker is to present to an audience. The speaker should have a well-furnished mind. You have had the experience of listening to a public speaker who commanded your closest attention not only because of what he said, but also because of what he was. He inspired confidence in you because of his personality and reserve power.
It is often what a man has within himself, rather than what he actually expresses, that carries greatest conviction to your mind. As you listen to such a man speak, you feel that he is worthy of your confidence because he draws upon broad experience and knowledge. He speaks out of the fulness of a well-furnished mind.
It is important, therefore, that there should be mental culture in a broad way, -- sound judgment, a sense of proportion and perspective, a fund of useful ideas, facts, arguments, and illustrations, and a large stock of common sense.
Every man who essays to speak in public should cultivate a judicial mind, or the habit of weighing and estimating facts and arguments. Such a mind is supposedly free from prejudice and seeks the truth at any cost. Such a mind does not want this or that to be necessarily true, but wants to recognize as true only that which is true.
In these days of multiplied publications and books of all kinds, when printed matter of every description is soliciting our time and attention, it is particularly desirable that we should cultivate a discriminating taste in our choice of books. The highest purpose of reading is for the acquisition of useful knowledge and personal culture, and we should keep these two aims constantly before us. It is noteworthy that men who have achieved enduring greatness in the world have always had a good book at their ready command.
If you are ever in doubt about the choice of books, you would do well to enlist the services of a literary friend, or ask the advice of a local librarian. But in any case, be on your guard against books and other publications of commonplace type, which can contribute nothing to the enrichment of your mind and life.
It is desirable that you should own the books you read. The sense of personal possession will give an interest and pleasure to your reading which it would not otherwise have, and moreover you can freely mark such books with your pencil for subsequent reference. It is also well to have a note-book conveniently ready in which to jot down useful ideas as they occur to you.
Here we come to the use of the pen. All the great orators of the world have been prolific writers in the sense of writing out their thoughts. It is the only certain way to clarify your thought, to test it in advance of verbal expression and to examine it critically. The public speaker should write much in order to form a clear and flowing English style. It is surprising how many of our thoughts which appear to us clear and satisfactory, assume a peculiar vagueness when we attempt to set them down definitely in writing.
The use of the pen tends to give clearness and conciseness to the speaker's style. It makes him careful and accurate. It aids, too, in fixing the ideas of his speech in his mind, so that at the moment of addressing an audience they will respond most readily to his needs.
A well-furnished mind is like a well-furnished house. In furnishing a house we do not fill it up with miscellaneous furniture, bric-a-brac and antiques, gathered promiscuously, but we plan everything with a view to harmony, beauty, and utility. We furnish a particular room in a tone that will be restful and pleasing to the occupant. We choose every piece of furniture, rug, picture, and drapery with a distinct purpose in view of what the total effect will be.
So with a well-furnished mind. We must choose the kind of material we intend to keep there. It should be chosen with a view to its beauty, power, and usefulness. We want no rubbish there. We want the best material available. Hence the vital importance of going to the right sources for the furniture of our mind, to the great books of the world, to living authorities, to nature, to music, to art, to the best wherever it may be found.
The second essential of an effective public speech is knowing how to say it. This implies a thorough training in the technique of speech. There should be a well-cultivated voice, of adequate volume, brilliancy, and carrying quality. There should be ample training in articulation, pronunciation, expression, and gesture. These so-called mechanics should be developed until they become an unconscious part of the speaker's style.
Your best opportunity for practice is in your everyday conversation. There you are constantly making speeches on a small scale. Public speaking of the best modern type is simply elevated conversation. I do not mean elevated in pitch, but in the sense of being launched upon a higher level of thought and with greater intensity than is usually called for by ordinary conversation.
In conversation you have your best opportunity for developing your public speaking style. Indeed, you are there, despite yourself, forming habits which will disclose themselves in your public speaking. As you speak in your daily conversation you will largely speak when you stand before an audience.
You will therefore see the importance of care in your daily speech. There should be a fastidious choice of words, care in pronunciation and articulation, and the mouth well opened so that the words may come out wholly through the mouth and not partly through the nose. Culture of conversation is to be recommended for its own sake, since everyone must speak in private if not in public.
One of the best plans for self-culture in speaking is to read aloud for a few minutes every day from a book of well-selected speeches. There are numerous compilations of the kind admirably suited to this purpose. The important thing here is to read in speaking style, not in what is termed reading style as usually taught in schools. When you practise in this way it would be well to imagine an audience before you and to render the speech as if emanating from your own mind. The student of public speaking will wisely guard himself against acquiring an artificial style or other mannerism.
Another good plan is to make short mental speeches while walking. When possible it is well to choose a country road for this purpose, or a park, or some other place where one's mind is not likely to be often diverted by passers-by. Lord Dufferin, the eminent British orator, was accustomed to prepare most of his speeches while riding on horseback. The habit of forming mental speeches is a great aid to actual speech-making, as it tends to give the mind a power and an adaptability which it would not otherwise have.
The painter, the musician, the sculptor, the architect, and other craftsmen search out models for study and inspiration. The public speaker should do likewise, and history shows that the great orators of the world have followed this practise. You can not do better than take as your model the greatest short speech in all history, the Gettysburg Address.
An authority on English style has critically examined this speech and acknowledges that he cannot suggest a single change in it which would add to its power and perfection.
You recall the circumstances under which it was written. On the morning of November 18, 1863, Abraham Lincoln was travelling from Washington to take part next day in the consecration of the national cemetery at Gettysburg. He wrote his speech on a scrap of wrapping-paper, carefully fitting word to word, changing and correcting it in minutest detail as best he could until it was finished.
The next day after the speech had been delivered, Edward Everett, the trained and polished orator, said that he would have been content to have made in his oration of two hours the impression which Lincoln had made in that many minutes.
It will repay you to study this speech closely and to wrest from it its innermost secrets of power and effectiveness. The greatest underlying quality of this speech is its rare simplicity -- simplicity of thought, simplicity of language, simplicity of purpose, and shining through it all, the simplicity of the great emancipator himself.
This simplicity is one of the great distinguishing qualities of effective public speaking. It is characteristic of all true art. It is subtle and difficult to define, but Fenelon gives a definition that will aid us when he says, |Simplicity is an uprightness of soul that has no reference to self.| It is another word for unselfishness.
In these days of self-exploitation and self-aggrandizement, how refreshing it is to meet a man of true simplicity. We are won by his unaffected manner, his gentleness of argument, his ingratiating tones of voice, his freedom from prejudice and passion. Such a man wins us almost wholly by the power of his simplicity.
This supreme quality is noticeable in men who are said to have come to themselves. They have tasted and tested life, they have learned proportion and perspective, they have appraised things at their real value, and now they carry themselves in poise and power and confidence. They have found themselves in a high and true sense, and they have come to be known as men of simplicity.
Simplicity is not to be confounded with weakness or ignorance. It comes through long education. It does not mean the trite, or the commonplace, or the obvious. It is a strong and sturdy quality, is this simplicity of which I am speaking, and nothing else will atone for lack of it in the public speaker.
Longfellow calls it the supreme excellence, since it is the quality which above all others brings serenity to the soul and makes life really worth living. Every man should earnestly seek to cultivate this great quality as essential to noble character.
This speech is conspicuous for another indispensable quality for effective public speaking, -- the quality of sincerity. It grows largely out of simplicity and is the product of integrity of mind and heart. Men recognize it quickly, though they cannot easily tell whence it comes. We find it highly developed in great leaders in business and professional life. There has never been a really great public speaker who was not preeminently a sincere man.
Beecher said, |Let no man who is a sneak try to be an orator.| Such a man can not be. He will shortly be found out. The world's ultimate estimate of a man is not far wrong.
A politician of much promise was addressing a distinguished audience in Washington. The Opera House was crowded to the doors to hear him and apparently he was making a good impression upon all his hearers. But suddenly, at the very climax of his speech, while upwards of two thousand eyes were rivetted upon him, he was seen to wink at a personal friend of his sitting in a nearby box, and at that instant his future political prospects were shattered as a vase struck by lightning. In that single instant of insincerity he was appraised by that discriminating audience and his doom was sealed.
Still another great quality in the Gettysburg speech is its directness. The speaker had a clearly-defined purpose in view. He knew what he wanted to say, and he proceeded to say it -- no more, and no less.
There was no straying away into by-paths, no padding of words to make up for shortage of ideas, no superfluous and big-sounding phrases, no empty rhetoric or glittering generalities.
How many speakers there are who aim at nothing and hit it. How many speakers there are who are on their way but do not know whither.
If this directness of quality were applied to talking in business, in committee meetings, in telephone conversations, in public speaking, it would save annually in this country millions of words and incalculable time and energy.
You will note that this speech has the rare quality of conciseness. We have an illustration here of how much a man can say in about 265 words and in the short space of two minutes, if he knows precisely what he wants to say.
It is well to bear in mind that although this speech was scribbled off with seeming ease, Lincoln owed his ability to do it to a long and painstaking study of words and English style.
He was a profound student of the dictionary. He steeped himself in words. He scrutinized words, he studied words, he made himself a master of words.
This is a valuable habit for every man to form, -- to study words regularly and earnestly, and to add consciously to his working vocabulary a few words daily -- so in the course of a year such a man will acquire a large and varied stock of words which will do his instant bidding.
The conclusion is a vital part of a speech. It is a place of peril to many a public speaker. Countless speeches have been ruined by a bad conclusion.
The most important thing here is that having decided beforehand upon the particular ideas or message with which you intend to conclude your speech, not to let any influence lead you away from this preconceived purpose.
Some speakers are about to conclude effectively but are unwilling to omit anything which they have planned to give in their speech, and so continue in an endeavor to recall every item. At last such a speech has a loose and straggling ending.
The words of the conclusion need not be memorized, but the ideas should be definitely outlined in the mind and fixed in the memory, not as words, but as ideas.
The knowledge that you can turn at will to these definite ideas, and so bring your speech to a close, will confer upon you a degree of self-confidence which will be of immense service to you.
You should ever bear in mind this golden rule for the conclusion of your speech: When you have finished what you have of importance to say, do not be tempted to wander off into by-paths, or to tell an additional story, or to say |and one word more,| but having finished your speech, stop on the instant and sit down.