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How To Utter The Speech Platform Decorum

( Originally Published 1922 )

I. First Impressions

Much depends upon first impressions and opening words. Often an audience is either won or lost by the first half dozen sentences of a speech. Some men as they come out on the plat-form seem scared or worried, some vain and egotistical, some pompous and puffed up. Some pace stealthily forward toward the footlights with the cat-like tread of a tiger about to leap upon its prey; others pop up like a prairie-dog from his hole; and still others move forward with an awful calm and solemnity that strikes a chill of terror into every heart. One should come before an audience in a simple, natural, and friendly way. There sits your audience; to have them there at all is a big beginning, a great chance, a generous compliment. It may be supposed that they are friendly, or, at worst, neutral; though able and noted speakers often have to meet audiences that are openly sometimes even violently hostile. And in any company that a high school student may address there will, no doubt, be some who are critical or unfriendly. But for the most part they are willing to be entertained and informed. You must make the approach; success or failure lies with you.

The dress should be such as not to attract notice, neat, and in taste, but plain. Daniel Webster took pains as to little matters, "even to the last button on his coat." There is an advantage in such care in that then neither the speaker nor the audience need give such matters a thought during the entire speech. If you have mannerisms that draw attention from your speech to yourself, try to get rid of them. Avoid fidgety, purposeless movements of head, feet, and hands.

"Learn to wear an appearance of composure," says John A. Scott, "and you rapidly acquire the real repose that is one of the chiefest charms of the speaker's presence."

1. Nervous Fear. If you are nervous, do not worry. Simply control yourself. Nervousness under control is an asset. Nearly all good speakers will tell you that a certain degree of nervous excitement is necessary. If one is to do his best the brain must be keyed up to concert pitch; a violent pulse and a sick fear at the heart are usually only signs that one's whole being is alert to the task at hand.

2. Self-Confidence. You must trust yourself. The best way for you to gain confidence is to prepare so well on something that you really want to say that there can be little chance to fail. Fix your mind on what you are saying, not on how you are saying it, how you are standing, what kind of impression you are making. Appear before an audience as often as you can. Do not let yourself fail once. Go to the platform always keyed to do your best. Having done well and been praised, don't let a success deceive you into letting up on effort. Small triumphs that turn the head are just the things that lead to most big failures in public speaking. On the other hand do not grow faint-hearted because the way to success seems long and hard. It takes courage to become a public speaker; that is what makes the game worth the candle.

II. The Position

It is easier to say how not to stand than to give the exact position one should take. For example, do not stand at military attention; do not slouch. If a desk is near, it will not hurt to lay your hand on it at times, but do not lean on it. Avoid the schoolboy declamatory attitude of rigid, gawky stiffness. As a matter of fact, the trained speaker doesn't "take" a position at all; he comes to the front of the platform and begins to talk to his audience. But until you have come to do this naturally, try this: Stand in an easy comfortable position, the feet slightly apart, with one, say the right, slightly advanced, the toe turned out. Now relax the muscles of the right leg, letting the knee push forward a little. Rest the weight on the balls of the feet. Lean forward slightly from the hips. The hands should hang naturally at the sides; forget about them.

1. Change of Position. Having taken this position, do not keep it long. Your attitude should be one of earnest, purposeful animation, an alert readiness to impart ideas to the audience. To stand fixed in one spot defeats that end. At transitions of thought, and at points of vigorous climax, it is natural to change position. This need be only a short step in one direction or the other, often merely a shift of the body to face another section of the audience, but it should always be such as to indicate the nature of the mental action.

2. The Eyes. Look at your audience; it is unsafe to shift your gaze even for a moment from the faces before you. Do not neglect any one part of the audience; do not fix your eye on any one person or section. If you change position, look in the direction of your movement. Except in "pointing" gestures do not look in the direction of your gestures.

But the most graceful and most correct bodily behavior on the platform will in itself accomplish nothing. Behind, must be the mental attitude of one who has something of truth to say and is eager to say it, conveyed in the brightened eye, the uplifted countenance, the nerved body the whole man alive to his work. Nothing so quickly offends an intelligent audience as signs of studied artifice. Perhaps the only excuse that can be offered for giving students in speaking, directions in these matters is that conscious bodily action and attitude after a time lead to a corresponding mental state that later will express itself in a natural, unconscious manner. "Assume a virtue if you have it not." The army officers understood this principle in the late war when they made men snarl and growl and lash themselves into a fury of hate at the ugly bayonet practice.

3. The Gesture. What has just been said is the first element of gesture. The effect of look, bearing, and action on the mind and voice cannot be mistaken. The chief value of gesture is that in its harmony with the thought and feeling expressed, it gives the impression of the whole man speaking. In its perfection it is scarcely in itself noticed, so natural a part of the whole expression is it.

"Sometimes the most eloquent gesture is the body itself," says Beecher. And who has seen William Jennings Bryan standing firmly in quiet, determined assurance as he drives his truth bolts home who would not agree? But the head, the hands, the shoulders, even the feet may be used in effective gesturing.

III. How to Learn to Gesture

The impulse to gesture is natural; all we need is to free ourselves from the restraint and fear that grips us on the plat-form and we shall want to gesture. The writer hesitates to give directions; there is so much weak and silly gesturing to be seen as the result of various classroom methods that one might almost say it is better not to teach gesturing at all. And yet how it tears one's nerves to watch a speaker who shows that he wants to gesture, yet holds himself in through fear. To such a one let us advise, "Turn yourself loose; if you feel like gesturing, gesture; then learn to control your gestures." Then there is the speaker who gesticulates wildly in windmill style, like a hand-organ man in a passion. To him we would say, "Learn control; people can't listen while they laugh." Then there is the dull, sleepy speaker whose hands fall limply at his sides. "Either wake up, or quit speaking," is our counsel. I have seen many a lifeless speaker, however, wonderfully aroused through the forced use of gestures.

It is not necessary to take work in elocution to learn to gesture. Many of our great speakers have had very simple gestures. Gladstone's one gesture was to bring down his right hand with sledgehammer force on the table in front of him. One speaker uses his head vigorously to enforce his ideas, another strikes his clenched fist in the palm of his other hand, another stamps his foot; the most common form of gesture, and that most worth study for the ordinary speaker, is the emphatic hand or finger gesture. The gestures that the dramatic impersonator makes are another matter. They can best be learned by letting the body express naturally true feeling from within; next best, by watching people in all varieties of mental and emotional states and studying their actions.


1. Move the arm from the shoulder, not from the elbow.

2. Let your gestures in general proceed from the chest as a center and outwards.

3. Let the arm, wrist, and hands be free from stiffness; let them fall in an easy, natural position.

4. Let the gesture fit the thought.

5. Watch good speakers; learn that the real gesture is the emphatic motion of the hand, the stroke, made after the arm has been thrown out in preparation.

6. Work for variety in your gestures.

7. Practise; compare your own gestures with those of practised speakers; have your friends criticize; work to make your body, arms, and hands supple.


1. Do not gesture at or too near the beginning of your speech.

2. Do not gesture too much.

3. Don't gesture unless you feel the impulse; never gesture for the sake of the gesture.

4. Don't pump your arms.

5. Don't watch your gestures.

6. Don't overdo some peculiar gesture.

7. Except in dramatic interpretation, never use imitative gestures.

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