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How To Make The Most Of A Public Meeting

( Originally Published 1922 )

As a rule the best speeches can be made only at public meetings. So the success of the speech is closely bound up with the character of the meeting and the conditions under which it is held. One who goes everywhere to speak to the people, and who attends meetings of every description to hear others speak cannot fail to be often annoyed, distressed, even sorely depressed, by the absence of skill and good sense on the part of men and women responsible for the calling and conducting of public meetings. There is often untold waste and disappoint-ment, owing to lack of wise leadership. Men and women in charge of public meetings frequently show surprising ignorance or indifference. It is the duty of every good citizen in a democracy such as ours to gain skill in dealing with public assemblies, for the welfare and happiness of communities are often wrapped up in those efforts. The writer so often sees the bad effects of the poor management of church services, civic rallies, educational meetings and gatherings in the interest of good fellowship and social enjoyment, that he wishes he might offer helpful hints, out of the abundance of his experience, to men and women who may be called upon to lead in public assemblies. Most people who have these public duties pressed upon them, and who fail so sadly to measure up to the situation, are themselves speakers. So they as much as their neighbors even more, perhaps suffer hardship, embarrassment, and chagrin.

I. The Outside Speaker

A chief object of public meetings is to hear some able and accomplished speaker from a distance on some civic, moral, or cultural theme. To secure such a speaker is, of course, no easy matter. No doubt it will cost a good deal of money to provide such a man, even though he receive no pay himself for the lecture. The person, committee, or institution under whose auspices the address is to be given will necessarily have given much time and thought to the occasion. It will take much of the time of the speaker who comes to give the address; and it goes without saying that in various ways time and money and energy have been expended by wise and good people in the city. Now, in view of all the time and talent, and money, and effort that have been laid out upon this worthy public event, is it not self-evident that the community should focus upon the hour and a half or two hours, during which the fruit of the entire enterprise is to be brought forth, the utmost unity, skill, and efficiency? For two hours, the solitary aim of the manage-ment and all interested citizens should be the full, happy, unqualified realization of the cherished hopes of the city in this meeting.

Yet how often a great public event falls flat! The meeting has been poorly advertised. The place and the hour have not been clearly indicated. Other very important public meetings have been set for the same evening, or some popular social affair is in full swing. Perhaps when the audience begins to assemble, the hall is unopened and unheated. Or, possibly, the room is in disorder. Very likely there are not enough seats. The chairman is late; or there has been no chairman appointed. No one seems to know who is in charge. There was to have been some music; but the musicians have failed to arrive; or have come and (musician-like) are restlessly waiting to perform so that they may leave. Or, if the room is open on time, and all is warm and bright and inviting, and the crowd present and eager, the chairman on time, the speaker ready and eager, very likely some announcements are made that turn out to be speeches. Perhaps a committee is called upon to report; and the Chairman, thrilled and magnetized by seeing such a vast and eager audience before him, yields to the temptation to exhort as well as report. Then a motion may be made and a lengthy discussion ensue. Half or three-quarters of an hour after the time set for the visiting speaker to begin his address, the Chairman, in a good many "well-chosen remarks," introduces some very honorable but very ancient and dull citizen to present the speaker of the evening. At last, about the time that many of the audience feel that they are compelled to go, the 'orator himself by this time weary, and nervous, and very possibly out of humor gets on his feet well aware that a golden opportunity has been squandered, and that, at best, he can barely redeem the occasion.

The writer had a recent experience that well shows how a bungling committee and an inefficient chairman can ruin an evening. There were to be two speeches of forty-five minutes each. The meeting was to begin promptly at 7:30 o'clock, with the writer giving the opening speech. At 7:30 the crowd was there, so was the writer. But the chairman had not yet appeared, neither had the other speaker. The audience waited and became restless; at 8:15 came a member of the committee in charge to say that the chairman would be there soon; at 8:25 the chairman arrived, smilingly and leisurely, with the second speaker, and two other speakers. The committee had decided to use this opportunity to drag in two local celebri-ties. The committee had also found it wise to have these two speak first. At 8:30, exactly one hour past the appointed time, the chairman and his galaxy of orators sallied onto the plat-form. About the same moment, various members of the audience began to file from the hall. Those who remained were plainly irritated. After sundry explanations and an elaborate introduction on the part of the chairman, the first local celebrity took the floor. When at the end of thirty minutes he sat down, quite a sizable delegation of the audience rose and left. "Gad, man," complained the original second speaker of the evening, as Mr. Smith came back to his seat, "you've driven them all home." The next local celebrity consumed twenty-five minutes. A still larger section of the audience drifted out. When the third speaker, fat, wheezy, and full of his subject, had subsided into silence, the writer arose at 10:20 to face the handful of people left, himself too nervous and worn to make a fit speech, his audience too tired and cross to listen.

The remedy for such farces is almost self-evident. He who would conduct a successful public meeting need only follow these few simple rules:

1. Plan; plan all the details of your meeting ahead, before there is a word of publicity. Arrange for the exact time, the place, the speaker, the chairman.

2. Then advertise widely and consistently.

3. See that everything is ready and in order the hall heated, lighted, opened, the ushers ready, and the musicians in place. Do all this yourself; don't depend on Jones. Then see that the speakers are on the platform on time. Impress it upon them in advance that the meeting must begin on time.

4. As the clock strikes the appointed hour, see that the chairman opens the meeting.

5. Make it a rule to avoid any matter of business at such a time. If there is business to attend to let it come after the speech has been made.

6. Let the introductory speech be short, never more than five minutes in length. Let it be spicy and pointed, such as to center attention on the speaker and to arouse interest in him and in what he has to say.

7. Avoid the bad habit, if you are chairman, of rehashing the good points of the address for the edification of the audience after the speaker has finished.

These suggestions followed out, along with the use of tact, good humor, and common sense in handling an audience, will work wonders in making public meetings things of efficiency and delight.

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