How to Become an Orator

Hints by the Best Public Speakers of the Day
Pall Mall Gazette (October1888)

[1] It has been said that to "stand up and speak for ten minutes without looking ashamed of himself" is what the average Englishman finds it hardest of all things to do. Hitherto the average Englishman has hummed and hawed along comfortably enough; but there can be no doubt that in these democratic days the future will lie with the articulate. In the sphere of the pulpit there is now so much competition among the churches that the preacher who hesitates is lost. In Parliament the good old days are over when the Duke of Wellington's rule of oratory sufficed: "Say what you have to say, don't quote Latin, and sit down." For one thing, the number of members who win their way into the House by success on the platform is ever increasing; and for another, no man can any longer expect to have "the ear of the House" to any purpose unless he can also command that of the country. On the platform itself the standard required in the present day is much higher than it used to be, thanks in some measure to the part now played in English politics by those born orators, the Irish. The attention given to elocution by young men preparing for the pulpit, and the rapid spread of parliamentary debating societies, are among the means adopted, in view of the new need, for curing our old and natural defects. But still more valuable, perhaps, would be the advice of those who are already past masters in the art and who are qualified to preach what they themselves have long practised. A correspondent elicited such advice the other day from the first of our living orators in the political field; and we are now glad to be able to supplement his advice with that of some other public speakers, of acknowledged excellence in their several spheres. First, however, it will be well to reprint Mr. Bright's letter, which we put before our correspondents as a starting point for their own further remarks:–

"As to modes of preparation for speaking, it seems to me that very man would readily discover what suits him best. To write speeches and then to commit them to memory is a double slavery, which I could not bear. To speak without preparation, especially on great and solemn topics, is rashness, and cannot be recommended. When I intend to speak on anything that seems to me important, I consider what it is that I wish to impress upon my audience. I do not write my facts or my arguments, but make notes on two or three or four slips of note paper, giving the line of argument and the facts as they occur to my mind, and I leave the words to come at call while I am speaking. There are occasionally short passages which for accuracy I may write down, as sometimes also–almost invariably–the concluding words or sentences may be written. This is very nearly all I can say on this question. The advantage of this plan is that while it leaves a certain and sufficient freedom to the speaker it keeps him within the main lines of the original plan upon which the speech was framed, and what he says, therefore, is more likely to be compact, and not wandering and diffuse."

We now have the pleasure of supplementing the advice of the first of political orators by that of the first of scientific orators. Few men have had so diversified an experience in public speaking as Professor Huxley, and no man of equal scientific accomplishments can, we imagine, lay any claim to rivalling him in articulateness and eloquence.

Professor Huxley, F.R.S.

I forget what veteran public speaker it was who gave this advice to a beginner: "Write out your speech; and be especially careful about [2] writing the parts in which you give way to your feelings." But I believe the counsel to be excellent, and, on all important occasions, I have acted upon it. But I have never committed the written matter to memory. And that for several reasons, of which one, that I could not if I tried, is perhaps sufficient. Even if I could learn a speech by heart, I agree with Mr. Bright that the burden of going through the process would be intolerable. However, this is a question of idiosyncrasy. I know of at least one admirable speaker who is said to learn every word by heart, and whose charming delivery omits no comma of the original. The use, to me, of writing, sometimes of rewriting half a dozen times over, that which I threw aside when I had finished it, was to make sure that the framework of what I had to say–its logical skeleton, so to speak–was, so far as I could see, sound and competent to bear all the strain put upon it. I very early discovered that an argument in my head was one thing, and the same argument written out in dry bare propositions quite another in point of trustworthiness. In the latter case, assumptions supposed to be certain while they lay snug in one's brain had a trick of turning out doubtful; consequences which seemed inevitable proved to be less tightly connected with the premisses than was desirable; and telling metaphors showed a curious capacity for being turned to account by the other side. I have often written the greater part of an address half a dozen times over, sometimes upsetting the whole arrangement and beginning on new lines, before I felt I had got the right grip on my subject.

A subordinate, but still very important use of writing, when one has to speak, is that the process brings before the mind all the collateral suggestions which are likely to arise out of the line of argument adopted. Psychologically considered, public speaking is a very singular process. One half of the speaker's mind is occupied with what he is saying; the other half with what he is going to say. And if the field of vision of the prospective half is suddenly crossed by some tempting idea which has not already been considered, the speaker is not at all unlikely to follow it. But if he does, Heaven knows where he may turn up; or what bitter reflections may be in store for him, when the report of his speech stares him in the face next morning. Cynical as the latter part of the advice which I have quoted may sound, it is just when the strange intoxication which is begotten by the breathless stillness of a host of absorbed listeners weakens the reason and opens the floodgates of feeling that the check of the calmly considered written judgment tells, even if its exact words are forgotten.

As to notes, my experience may be of interest to that unfortunate mortal the average Englishman, who, as you say, finds it the hardest thing in the world to stand up and speak for ten minutes without looking, or at least feeling, either a fool or a coward. Of that form of suffering I do not believe that the average Englishman knows half as much as I do. For twenty years I never got up to speak without my tongue cleaving to the roof of the mouth; and if the performance was a lecture, without an idée fixe that I should have finished all I had to say long before the expiration of the obligatory hour; and, at first, I clung to my copious MS. as a shipwrecked mariner to a hencoop. My next stage was to use brief but still elaborate notes–not unfrequently, however, having the big MS. in my pocket to fall back upon in case of an emergency, which, by the way, never arose. Then the notes got briefer and briefer, until I have known occasions on which they came down to a paragraph. But the aid and comfort afforded by that not too legible scrawl upon a short sheet of paper was inexpressible. Twice in my life I have been compelled to swim without floats altogether–to renounce even a sheet of note-paper. On one of these occasions, I had to address an audience to some extent hostile, upon a topic which required very careful handling, and I had taken unusual pains in writing my discourse with the intention of practically reading many parts of it. But the assemblage was a very large one; and when I came face to face with it I saw, at a glance, that, if I meant to be heard, looking at notes was out of the question. So I took my courage in my two hands, put my papers down, and left them untouched; while the discourse, in a way quite unaccountable to me, rolled itself off as if I had been a phonograph, in order and matter, though not in words, as it was written.

On the other occasion, the circumstances were still more awkward. I had been obliged to dictate my discourse the day before it was delivered to a short-hand writer for the Associated Press in the United States, exacting from him a pledge that he would supply me with a fairly written out copy to be used as notes. My friend the reporter kept his word, and a couple of hours before the time of speaking the manuscript arrived. But, alas! it was written on the thin paper, which I believe is technically called "flimsy." I could not read it at any distance with ease, and the attempt to make use of it in speaking would have been perilous. So I had the comfort of knowing that the local papers might have one version and the others another of my speech. Luckily, no one took the trouble to compare the two, or the discrepancies might have afforded good ground for suspicion that my address and myself were alike mythical.

In spite of this tolerably plain evidence that if I were put to it I could very well do without notes, I have never willingly been without them–at any rate in my pocket. At public dinners and ordinary public meetings they have long ceased to come out; but, on more serious occasions, I have always had them before me, though I very often forgot to look at them. I think they acted as a charm against that physical nervousness, which I have never quite got over, and the origin of which has always been a puzzle to me. With every respect for the public, I cannot say I ever felt afraid of an audience; and my cold hands and dry mouth used to annoy me when my hearers were only students of my class, as much as at other times. The late Lord Cardwell once told me that Sir Robert Peel never got up to speak in the House of Commons without being in what schoolboys call a "funk;" and I fancy from what I have heard of great speakers that this trouble of their weaker brethren is much better known to them than people commonly suppose. There is a rational ground for it. So much depends upon all sorts of physical and moral conditions that beginning to make a speech is like going into action, and no man knows–not the most practised of speakers–how he will come out of it. And, in each case,

But I do not think that this rational ground for speaker's "funk" is the real one. It seems to be, in people of a certain temperance, as much a physiological process as the joyous reaction which follows upon the first bad five minutes, and substitutes one of the keenest of pleasures for one of the greatest of the smaller miseries of life.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University