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How To Win And Hold An Audience

( Originally Published 1922 )

Darius Green was the first American birdman. His flying machine was a marvel. He selected and brought together his materials with great care. In the drawing up of his plans and the building of his machine he revealed rare genius.

And in the loft above the shed
Himself he locks with thimble and thread
And wax and hammer and buckles and screws,
And all such things as geniuses use;
Two bats for patterns, curious fellows!
A charcoal-pot and a pair of bellows;
Some wire, and several old umbrellas;
A carriage cover, for tail and wings;
A piece of harness; and straps and strings.

Success seemed certain. But when he launched forth to surprise the world and all creation, his flight was a failure. It extended no further than from the barn loft to the barnyard. Somehow his machine did not take the air; he got off poorly. Now many a speaker comes to grief in the same way. He leaves nothing undone that patience and industry can achieve in the work of gathering material; and he plans and builds his speech with masterly skill. But the speech will not go. He cannot launch it. Somehow, when the fatal and longed-for hour comes, and he cranes his neck, looks about, and makes ready to take wing, down he comes with a thump, a bump, and a crash; and away go his dreams of soaring upward on the eagle wings of oratory.

Now in public address it is all-important to make a good start. Yet in the whole hard process of speech-making there is nothing quite so hard as to make easy and skilful contact with an audience. The critical moment has come. For days and weeks everything has led up to this climax. General preparation is complete. The hour has struck. The speaker appears on the platform. The audience is before him. The next three minutes will decide whether the speech is to be a success or a failure.

I. Prepare with a Particular Audience in Mind

General preparation is not enough; there must be specific preparation as well. As you face the crowd your prospect of success will depend largely upon the degree of familiarity you feel with your surroundings. All along, as you were preparing, you should have kept in mind the sort of people you were to speak to and the conditions under which you were to speak. As you stand there the situation ought not to seem wholly strange to you. The stage, the size and shape of the room, the arrangement of the seats, the number and character of your audience ought to have been realized as nearly as possible in your mind's eye long before you actually stood there to speak. A particular speech should be prepared for a particular audience and a particular occasion.

Lincoln, even as a boy, used to turn material over in his mind to fit it exactly to the humble audience he intended it for. He said once to a friend who knew him well before the War: "You see when I was a boy over in Indiana all the local politicians used to come to our cabin to discuss politics with my father. I used to sit by and listen to them, but father would not let me ask many questions, and there were a good many things I did not understand. Well, I'd go up to my room in the attic and sit down or pace back and forth until I made out just what they meant. And then I'd lie awake for hours just a-putting their ideas into words that the boys around our way could understand."

Of course certain speeches will fit almost any audience, yet each time such a speech is delivered one should try beforehand to think one's self into the mood and atmosphere of the company that is now to be addressed. If delivered over and over again the speech should constantly be recast to meet changing needs and varying conditions. To be sure, it will often be impossible to form a correct picture of the conditions under which one is to speak; but old and trained speakers forecast a situation as well as they can, and, then, come what may, do their best to adapt themselves to circumstances. Some popular men who know that they are likely to be called upon for remarks, no matter where they may be, never attend a meeting where there is to be public speaking without shaping in their minds beforehand a few ideas suitable to the time and place. My father was such a man. I used to wonder, as I would sometimes in my boyhood take long drives with him across the Kansas prairies, why he was so absorbed and absent-minded when we were going to some church or schoolhouse or reunion where I knew he was not advertised to speak. But I learned as I grew older that he was almost sure to be called upon for a speech, no matter what the occasion. So he was wise to be always ready. One of the earliest lessons he taught me when I set out to be a public speaker was never to be taken unawares. The result has been that I have prepared many a speech I never had a chance to deliver. But in the long run such preparation was worth while,

Perhaps America has never produced a greater orator than Henry Ward Beecher. He will often be referred to in these pages, and often he will be allowed to speak out of his rich experience. He was very human, and he often expresses him-self in simple and helpful ways in his desire to aid and guide young speakers. Here is an incident very much to the point from his boyhood experience:

I remember the first sermon I ever preached. I had preached a good many sermons before, too. But I remember the first real one.

I had preached a good while as I had used my gun. I used to go out hunting by myself, and I had great success in firing off my gun; and the game enjoyed it as much as I did, for I never hurt them or hit them. I fired off my gun as I see hundreds of men firing off their sermons. I loaded it, and bang! there was a smoke, a report, but nothing fell; and so it was again and again. I recollect one day in the fields my father pointed out a little red squirrel, and said to me, "Henry, would you like to shoot him?" I trembled all over, but I said "Yes." He got down on his knee, put the gun across a rail, and said, "Henry, keep perfectly -cool; perfectly cool; take aim." And I did, and I fired, and over went the squirrel, and he didn't come back again either. That was the first thing I ever hit; and I felt an inch taller, as a boy that had killed a squirrel, and knew how to aim a gun.

Then follows the account of how he preached his first real sermon :

First, I sketched out the things we all know. "You all know you are living in a world perishing under your feet. You all know that time is extremely uncertain; that you don't know whether you will live another month or week. You all know that your destiny, in the life that is to come, depends upon the character you. are forming in this life;" and in that way I went on with my "You all know's" until I had about forty of them. When I had got through that, I turned round and brought it to bear upon them with all my might and there were seventeen men awakened under that sermon. I never felt so triumphant in my life. I cried all the way home. I said to myself: "Now I know how to preach."

So a given speech should be made to fit a given audience. A trained speaker may be called upon in the course of a single day to give a seven- or eight-minute speech over and over again in the same town. He will change the substance of his speech very little. But, after all, no two of the talks will be alike. Let us say that he speaks first to a high school audience at nine o'clock in the morning; at eleven he will meet a group of city officials and present his topic to them; at twelve he lunches with the business men of the city and makes his talk to them; at three he meets the leading women of the city at a church or club and speaks to them; at five he addresses a hundred working men as they come from the shops after their day's work; and at eight in the evening he speaks to a company of university professors and professional men. He will adapt his language, his manner, his illustrations to the needs of each group. When he talks to the high school boys and girls and to the working men he will probably use shorter and simpler words than he will when he talks to the professional men, and he will draw his illustrations from the sources, that are most familiar to the audience he is addressing at the time. When he speaks to the city council and to the women he will, no doubt, be a little more formal than when he speaks to the boys and girls, and the shopmen, and the merchants. He may speak in a witty or humorous vein at the luncheon and at the high school assembly, while he may express himself in the most serious and dignified manner before the scholars and thinkers and reformers whom he may meet in the evening, or at the gathering of earnest women. Before the merchants he may touch upon merely the practical and business bearings of his subject. When he talks to the boys and girls his chief object may be to arouse their interest, and he may do this by bright stories and witty allusions. He may feel when he speaks to the shopmen that what they need most is information,' so he will pepper and salt his remarks with facts and telling examples that will make the issue as clear as daylight. In addressing the city authorities his main effort may be to move them to action, and he may have to appeal to selfish or partisan motives in order to get them to act. But the upshot of it all is that each time he speaks he has clearly in mind before he rises and opens his mouth, the place, the time, the company; and on each occasion he fits his speech to his audience just as the doctor knows beforehand the needs of each patient and selects his medicine with reference to the person and the disease.

Says Booker T. Washington one of the truly great American orators of the generation that came in with the Civil War "I always make it a rule to make especial preparation for each separate address. No two audiences are exactly alike. It is my aim to reach and talk to the heart of each individual audience, taking it into my confidence very much as I would a person. When I am speaking to an audience, I care little for how what I am saying is going to sound in the newspapers, or to another audience, or to an individual. At the time, the audience before me absorbs all my sympathy, thought, and energy."

II. Meet Your Audience on the Level

You should not be afraid of your audience. You should not feel yourself above it. It may be supposed that the people before you are neither better nor worse than you yourself. Says Lincoln, "I always assume that my audience are in many things wiser than I am, and I say the most sensible thing I can to them. I never found that they did not understand me." The brilliant Sargent Prentiss, unsurpassed among American orators, said, "It is impossible to speak too well to any audience." On the other hand, the following story, told by Professor Phelps, shows how Patrick Henry, great orator though he was, came to grief on one occasion. "Patrick Henry thought to win the favor of the backwoodsmen of Virginia by imitating their colloquial dialect, of which the biographer gives the following specimen from one of his speeches: 'All the larnin upon the yairth are not to be compared with naiteral pairts.' But his hearers, backwoodsmen, though they were, knew better than that; and they knew that a statesman of the Old Dominion ought to speak good English. They were his severest critics."

III. Be Friendly

The men who have most constantly won their way into the hearts of audiences have been the men who have shown genuine interest in the people. They have desired to be on good terms with their listeners, and they have made this plain in the frankest and most unmistakable ways. They like the people; and they are fond of their approval. They are willing to go out of their way to serve them. They make themselves one with the crowd wherever they go. They show themselves friendly because they are friendly. This intensely human and lovable quality has marked almost every one of our recent popular American speakers. This is one of the chief charms of William Jennings Bryan and how unfailing his charm is! Roosevelt was supremely a good fellow. People could not resist him. They might now and then be out of humor with him, and disagree with him violently, but he was so open, and manly, and overflowing with good will to all honest men that people could not help admiring and trusting him. It is this same quality that makes Governor Henry Allen of Kansas so winsome and effective as an orator. People who know him cannot help loving him because they know he loves all men. Beecher, in his day, had a great heart and went straight to the affections of men; and preeminently among all great men Lincoln valued his fellow men, and loved them, and as a result was absolute master of the hearts and minds of whatever assembly of people he chose to address.

IV. Be Earnest

Be earnest. Above all things else the secret of oratory lies in this. It requires something more than earnestness to be eloquent, but no eloquence is possible without intense feeling and deep conviction. When one is completely wrapped up in his subject he forgets all fear forgets himself, even, so that every trace of vanity and insincerity flies away. He does not merely have a grasp of his subject; his subject has complete possession of him. He feels that his message is greater than he himself. Something behind him and above him speaks through him. Happy is the orator who can thus come under the sway of a master idea or conviction.

Jane Addams wrote recently: "I have never had the slightest 'passion for success in public speaking' but merely a desire to get across something which I wished to say. Public speaking as an art, in and of itself, irrespective of the message, has not interested me." Booker Washington tells us in Up from Slavery, "I make it a rule never to go before an audience, on any occasion, without asking the blessing of God on what I want to say." Said Phillips Brooks, "The real power of your oratory must lie in your intelligent delight in what you are doing." Wendell Phillips puts into two sentences the secret of his magic eloquence: "The chief thing I aim at is to master my subject. Then I earnestly try to get the audience to think as I do."

The curious fact that many of our most masterful speakers approach the hour for a great public effort with extreme dread and anxiety seems to be directly related to this spirit of almost religious earnestness that goes with public speaking. President Samuel Lough of Baker University, in a letter to the writer, says: "As a boy and young man I was perhaps abnormally timid. During my first year at college, when my name was announced for a chapel oration, I immediately decided to withdraw from college rather than speak. . . . I have never become entirely free from the dread of speaking." It is related of President Frank W. Gunsaulus that during the early days of his ministry in Chicago and he never surpassed the eloquence of his youth he would sometimes become so agitated at the thought of entering the pulpit as the hour drew near when he must preach, that he would have run away from his study in a panic if friends had not held him to his task. No one who has listened to Bishop William A. Quayle, fearless, fluent, brilliant orator that he is, would ever suspect that he could tremble at the thought of standing on his feet before an audience. Yet here is his confession in a friendly letter to the author: "When I started to college the thought of speaking in public was as a nightmare. It turned me pale to think of it, yet not for a moment did I doubt that this was my business. It hurt to try to speak, and it hurts yet. None the less I must speak and there's the end of it. I was pushed as the current of a river. I have suffered agonies in this holy art of public speech, and that is part of the cross men in speaking places must bear." And even Bryan was not immune from fright. He writes, under date of February 23, 1920, concerning his boyhood attempts at public speaking while at the academy: "I recall that on my first appearance I was so frightened that my knees gave more applause than my audience."

V. Be Animated

Next to having something that is worth saying and next to saying this with passion and conviction, the secret of successful public speaking is to be found in vivacity, animation. A slow, dull man has no business on the platform. He might join the I. W. W., or run for the Presidency of the Mexican Republic, or turn bronco buster, but he need not hope to make a place for himself as a public speaker. He cannot hope to stir and move others unless he tingles with life himself. He must not only be physically alive; he must be vibrant with sympathy for all sorts and conditions of men; and his mind must be eager and alert swift as an eagle and restless as the sea. He must have life, and must trust human nature. He must be earnest, but he must also be genial, and able to see the funny side of things. He must not be afraid at times to "let nature caper." If he is natural, he is bound to be lively.

There is an indescribable charm in vitality. It is a native gift often the mere overflowing of animal spirits, and abounding physical health. Sometimes it shows itself in ease, fullness, spontaneity. It seems to go by moods, so that one can never be quite sure whether the exercise of speaking is to be an hour of luxury or a period of distress and torture. "The animated speaker," writes Professor J. H. Mellvaine, "seems to overflow from an inexhaustible fullness. His tones are full and sonorous; his changes of pitch and inflection are full; that is, they rise and fall to the full pitch required by the sentiment; his articulation is full, distinctly enunciating every sound, without being labored or overstrained; his emphasis is full, reaching the just measure of force and frequency; and the modulation or melody of his speaking is full, and satisfies the ear. In a word, fullness is the characteristic of the whole delivery."

This quality of vivacity, or animation, sometimes takes the form of playfulness something very different from either wit or joviality. There is a beautiful passage in Dr. William Matthews' book, Literary Style, which does justice to this quality of personality. "By playfulness," he writes, "is meant that indescribable something which at particular times surrounds particular people like an electric atmosphere, which gilds their thoughts, lends a perfume to the commonest sentiments, and for a time, translates those who fall under its spell into a kind of fairy land remote from the humdrum views, the jog-trot sequences, the little carking cares . . . which almost inevitably beset average life at average moments. This quality is the last touch, the finishing perfection of a noble character; it is the gold on the spire, the sunlight on the cornfield, the smile on the cheek of the noble knight lowering his sword-point to his lady-love; and it can result only from the truest balance and harmony of soul."

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