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How To Utter The Speech

( Originally Published 1922 )

It is not enough to have something to say and to be able to put it into English; one must know how to say it in the most telling way. The secret of success in expression lies in hard work. In good speaking the voice and body unite in conveying thought and feeling to the audience. Both must be under control, ready to respond with precision to the will and mood of the mind at work. The best readers and speakers are the most natural. But do not be deceived. They are natural in the way that great singers are natural —as a result of long, careful training. The American Beauty rose is natural enough, but the main reason it is different from its scraggly little roadside cousin is that it has been well brought up. Its native leanings toward beauty have been developed to their utmost. "Poetry," said Keats, "should come as naturally as the leaves to a tree." But Keats's own first work, his "natural" verse, was wordy and stilted, imperfect as could be. It was only after months and years of conscious, painful effort that beautiful poetry came from his pen as naturally as the green leaves in spring.

To read or speak well one must read or speak with under-standing. Good silent reading is the key to good oral reading. The thought and feeling of the writer must be re-lived in the mind of the reader. Then the voice must be made to obey the thought. At best the expression may never quite measure up to the ideal. "It is very tantalizing and at the same time very beautiful," said a great actor, "that no matter how well I read. the voice inside me always reads better." That is it; the finely attuned voice inside must lead, gently but insistently, urging toward truer, more lovely speech. Imperfect as the result may seem, it will be far better because of the exertion of an understanding will and mind toward the ideal of exact, expressive utterance.

The Voice

The voice is one of the great wonders of God's gifts to man. One can do almost anything with it if he will only try. It is capable of the sweetness of a mother's lullaby or the rough hardness of a soldier's defiance. Through care and culture it may be made to express the finest emotion, or the most delicate shade of thought. But having done much with the voice let no one think his work is over. Even as a lovely garden left untended will grow to rank weeds in a season, so will the neglected voice soon lose its power and beauty. "Let the student accept once for all," says John R. Scott, "the proposition that voice culture is a work that is never over and done with; he must practise long and faithfully and intelligently to gain a fine voice, and he must continue systematic practice to retain it.

The voice is an index of one's personality; it reflects the moods and emotions of the inner life; it betrays what is hard and unkind and untrue, or it reveals that which is lovely and sweet and strong. A concern then for him who would have a good voice is to live a sincere, decent life, trying always to express his true thought and feeling in simple, plain speech. He will be sure then to avoid such "mere vocal quackery" as working up a set tone and manner, "such as that mawkish, insipid voice which some women cultivate as revealing their sweetness of soul."

He will rather work to make his voice so flexible and responsive that it may of itself vary to suit the idea and emotion to be conveyed. Such a voice is of untold value in business and social life; it is priceless in public address. People like natural speaking. But again let us understand that by "natural" we do not mean the untrained. Henry Ward Beecher puts it this way: "The natural man is the educated man. But it is said `Does not the voice come by nature?' Yes, but is there anything that comes by nature which stays as it comes if worthily handled? . . . There is no one thing in man that he has in perfection until he has it by culture. We know that in respect to everything but the voice. . . . Why, men think that nature means that which lies back of culture. Then you ought never to have departed from babyhood, for that is the only nature you had to begin with. But is nature the acorn forever? Is not the oak nature?"

Before you can overcome the faults that make your voice unpleasant and weak, you must know what these faults are. Self-criticism and the advice of good teachers and friends will help. One plan that is being tried in our schools in classes in speech education is to use the dictograph to record the pupil's voice. In this way one may hear himself talk, and so be the more able to judge of defects. Constant effort to perfect the voice will then work wonders. Henry James advised young people to seize every chance to hear good speech and then imitate it. That is good advice up to a certain point, but one must go further. Mere imitation is of no real value except as it may help one to discover for himself some of the principles that underlie good voice-production. And there are a few things that one must know and practise, consciously or unconsciously, if he is to have an agreeable voice.


It is often thought by young speakers that a loud and high-pitched voice is necessary to make the audience hear. But such is not the case. Mere noise has nothing to do with good speaking. If it had, we could sometimes understand the brakeman calling stations. In Shakespeare's day it was the town crier who was the horrible example of loud, fearful mouthings. Of course the brakeman is not the only offender today. The Fourth of July orator, most of our stump speakers, and many preachers are among those who seem to pin their faith to quantity of sound. Don't yell. Nothing so completely cuts you off from your audience. Shouting is for distances. The effect in speaking, in addition to branding you as an ignorant ranter in the eyes of the judicious, is to set you on a mountain top, your audience on a lower, distant ridge, with a broad valley between that you cannot cross. In such a case your audience can hardly be considered more than detached spectators, respectfully attentive, frankly bored, or mildly amused, as the case may be, but never genuinely sympathetic. You can never come to mental grips with them as does the real speaker with those in his presence. Shouting is for warning, for challenge, for rejoicing; your end as a speaker is to communicate thought and feeling to your audience after the manner of one conversing, and in turn to receive their responses. You cannot do this by a flood of noise that overawes the senses and sends the wits a packing.


Do not mistake loudness for energy. Any speech worth while must have vim. It were better that dull, lifeless speakers had never been born. They hurt good causes and waste people's time. Of course one must speak loud enough so that all can hear, but beyond that, mere loudness adds nothing to speech. Loudness sometimes wakes an audience up; sometimes it catches the attention of straying minds; but often it merely hides empty speech. "I never made a worse sermon in my life," mourned the elder Beecher, as he rode home from service with his son Henry. "Why," exclaimed the boy, "I never heard you preach louder." "That's just it," confessed the father, "when I haven't much to say I always holler." True force has its root in earnestness; earnestness is an evidence of the warm, animated soul imparting its deepest self. It is most forceful in restraint. All force is no force. Shakespeare most wisely urged upon his players temperance and reserve even in speeches of greatest passion. He knew that audiences are influenced only when the speaker is under control. The greatest force springs from true manhood and tempered intensity of thought and feeling in some great cause. The tense, profound passion of Wendell Phillips; the big, booming heartiness of Theodore Roosevelt; the quiet, but fervent, consecration of Maude Ballington Booth, are examples —none loud, but all with the power to move men. Speaking of Wendell Phillips, Mr. Curtis says,' "He glowed with consecrated and perfumed fire. The divine energy of his conviction utterly possessed him;" and yet his manner in speaking was "as if he simply repeated in a little louder tone what he had just been saying to some familiar friend at his elbow."

That is it; if your whole being is aglow with genuine feeling and belief, and if you have acquired habits of self-control in physical expression, you have gone far toward learning the secret of forceful speaking.


"Always speak in a natural key and in the conversational manner," says T. W. Higginson.2 "The days of pompous and stilted eloquence are gone by, and it was perhaps Wendell Phillips more than anybody else who put an end to it in this country, and substituted a simpler style." Of Phillips on the platform, Mr. Curtis says,' "He faced his audience with a tranquil mien and a beaming aspect that was never dimmed. He spoke, and in the measured cadence of his quiet voice was intense feeling, but no declamation, no passionate appeal, no superficial and feigned emotion — it was simple colloquy — a gentleman conversing." And yet to speak in the conversational manner is not to employ the tone one uses in conversation, exactly. There is the same lively sense of communication; there is the give and take spirit of conversation, so well illustrated in Gladstone's attitude of fair-minded willingness to listen to whatever of helpful or modifying suggestions might come from the other side, as he spoke in Parliament.' But there must be a general elevation of manner; the voice must be louder and made to fit the room. You must keep in mind that good speaking is yourself talking to the people before you, your mind in direct communication with every mind in your audience. Talk to them, but as an audience, not as a group of friends in a room.


Many men, and nearly all women speakers, pitch their voices too high. There are three keys — a low, a middle, and a high. The middle key is best for the speaker; it is more nearly the average key; it is, as not being extreme, less likely to offend; it is, too, the natural conversational, or communicative, key. Moreover, there is chance for greater variety when one's normal tone is in the middle key. A pleasantly modulated voice must have a little region to wander in. From the middle register there is a chance to shade the meaning and feeling by sliding into a higher or lower key. Sometimes a naturally high-pitched voice needs to be trained to a lower level, and a low-pitched voice to a higher level. The best trained voices can glide into a high, low, or middle register at will.


A speaker who held his voice at one key and who began his speech with a certain force and continued with even energy throughout might put his audience to sleep, but would hardly win sinners to repentance or twelve jurors to a unanimous vote. Some words are important, some mere connecting links; some sentences contain the key ideas to the whole speech; others simply form background. The voice must show all this. In speaking, a very natural mental process occurs. At first you are only a little keyed up, but as you go on you warm to your subject; you feel more strongly; your ideas grip more firmly; at times your whole being is on fire as the flames of your imagination kindle. Then again you drop down to more commonplace levels. To speak all this on a dead level would be ridiculous; it is an A. B. C. of effective speaking that the voice must be trained to convey such variety of mental action.

Hundreds of students in our schools speak and read in a dull stubborn monotone, and do not seem to realize it. It is too bad; and it is inexcusable. A little practice every day would give to each one of these a pleasant and flexible voice, capable of conveying exact meanings.


A speaker's voice must carry. A proper degree of loudness and the right pitch are necessary, but perhaps even more important is the "placing" of the voice. The vocal apparatus is made up of the vocal cords — vibrating, membranous strips stretched across the voice box, or larynx; the lungs and diaphragm, which act as a bellows to furnish and control the air sent across these cords in producing sound; the tongue, lips, cheeks, and soft palate, which modify these sounds into words; and the mouth, nasal, chest, and larynx cavities, which act as resonators to affect the quality and intensity of the sounds. For ordinary speaking in public, "head tones" are best. These are made by properly throwing the vibrations from the vocal cords upon the upper mouth and nasal resonators. The effect is to clarify and intensify the sound. This makes for distinct clear speaking. You can never have a clean-cut, bright tone until you have learned to "place the voice."


The many elements that make for good speech cannot well be separated. What we would say of one might well be said of several others. So with the things that are put down here under placing the voice; most of them apply as well to articulation, force, or tone quality.

a. Relax the Muscles. If the voice is to be lifted out of the throat and chest, the vocal organs must be freed from restraint. The muscles of the tongue, jaw, and throat must be relaxed to allow a free play of the organs of speech. Perhaps the first great enemy to the right use of the voice is our way of living, crowded together in houses and cities, where we must go about on tiptoe, as it were, speaking in suppressed tones so as not to disturb or shock the neighbors. Bishop Quayle says the hard thing about learning to speak these days is that we have no room to holloa any more. A sense of freedom is the key to easy, clear speech. I have never in my life heard a throaty guttural from a happy lad in the swimming hole or on the baseball diamond. But put that same boy in the classroom, and listen to him recite. The ringing tone of the playground has changed to a stifled, husky mumbling that will not carry halfway to the teacher's desk. The instinct of indoor repression is at work. And the pity is that too often this schoolroom manner becomes habitual, until some day the wise teacher or the alert pupil himself awakes to the need for training to get rid of the bad habit. To all such is this first advice — Loosen up those muscles; speak more as you do on the playground; lift that voice out of the throat.

b. Open the Mouth. "The mouth-opening habit in speaking should be encouraged and practised," says Professor Shurter. Such a suggestion might seem absurd except to the experienced teacher who knows that most of our young people have never learned that they must open their mouths to speak distinctly. A free movement of the lower jaw is necessary to produce good tones. The lad in the swimming pool opens his mouth wide; the boy in the classroom under nervous restraint mumbles almost through clenched teeth, with tense jaw and throat. Relax the throat. Loosen up the jaw in speaking. Throw off your fears, especially in the public speaking room. Remember that an atmosphere of restraint and trembling is a foe to good expression; it not only clogs the brain, but it paralyzes the vocal organs.

c. Use the Tongue. A flexible Tongue helps to make good tones. The tongue is of use in placing the voice as well as in forming sounds. A heavy, stiff tongue means dull,lifeless tones; a rolling, loosely-controlled tongue, ill-formed and unpleasant sounds. The tongue can be trained to an easy flexibility as well as any other organ. Train the muscles of the tongue.

d. Work the Lips. Stiff lips will muffle sounds that might otherwise be clear. The lips must be mobile and responsive. Only in this way can they do their part in making for pure tones and distinct speech. You will be surprised to find how much you can do with your lips by practising the exercises found at the end of this section.

e. Work for Breath Control. The power behind all vocal effort is the breath. Most boys and girls get the habit of speaking with as little exercise of lung power as possible. Learn to breathe full and deep and to control the breath as it goes out. Use the diaphragm and lower rib region, not the upper chest. The ancient orators would lie on their backs, sometimes with heavy weights on their chests, when they practised breathing. We need not do that, but we must realize that it takes much practice to learn to breathe right. Proper, vigorous use of the breath is needed for pure tones and strong, clean-cut articulation, and it is also one of the secrets of force and volume, without which no voice will carry.

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