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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

How To Speak In Public

Title:     How To Speak In Public
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

There are other things that women wish to do, it seems, beside studying and voting. There are a good many--if I may judge from letters that occasionally come to me--who are taking, or wish to take, their first lessons in public speaking. Not necessarily very much in public, or before mixed audiences, but perhaps merely to say to a roomful of ladies, or before the committee of a Christian Union, what they desire to say. "How shall I make myself heard? How shall I learn to express myself? How shall I keep my head clear? Is there any school for debate?" And so on. My dear young lady, it does not take much wisdom, but only a little experience, to answer some of these questions. So I am not afraid to try.

The best school for debate is debating. So far as mere confidence and comfort are concerned, the great thing is to gain the habit of speech, even if one speaks badly. And the practice of an ordinary debating society has also this advantage, that it teaches you to talk sense (lest you be laughed at), to speak with some animation (lest your hearers go to sleep), to think out some good arguments (because you are trying to convince somebody), and to guard against weak reasoning or unfounded assertion (lest your opponent trip you up). Speaking in a debating society thus gives you the same advantage that a lawyer derives from the presence of an opposing counsel: you learn to guard yourself at all points. It is the absence of this check which is the great intellectual disadvantage of the pulpit When a lawyer says a foolish thing in an argument, he is pretty sure to find it out; but a clergyman may go on repeating his foolish thing for fifty years without discovering it, for want of an opponent.

For the art of making your voice heard, I must refer you to an elocutionist. Yet one thing at least you might acquire for yourself,--a thing that lies at the foundation of all good speaking,--the complete and thorough enunciation of every syllable. So great is the delight, to my ear at least, of a perfectly distinct and clear-cut utterance, that I fear I should rather listen for an hour to the merest nonsense, so uttered, than to the very wisdom of angels if given in a confused or nasal or slovenly way. If you wish to know what I mean by a clear and satisfactory utterance, go to a woman-suffrage convention, and hear Miss Mary F. Eastman.

As to your employment of language, the great aim is to be simple, and, in a measure, conversational; and then let eloquence come of itself. If most people talked as well in public as in private, public meetings would be more interesting. To acquire a conversational tone, there is good sense in Edward Everett Hale's suggestion, that every person who is called on to speak,--let us say, at a public dinner,--instead of standing up and talking about his surprise at being called on, should simply make his last remark to his neighbor at the table the starting-point for what he says to the whole company. He will thus make sure of a perfectly natural key, to begin with; and can go on from this quiet "As I was just saying to Mr. Smith," to discuss the gravest question of Church or State. It breaks the ice for him, like the remark upon the weather by which we open our interview with the person whom we have longed for years to meet. Beginning in this way at the level of the earth's surface, we can join hands and rise to the clouds. Begin in the clouds,--as some of my most esteemed friends are wont to do,-- and you have to sit down before reaching the earth.

And, to come last to what is first in importance, I am taking it for granted that you have something to say, and a strong desire to say it. Perhaps you can say it better for writing it out in full beforehand. But whether you do this or not, remember that the more simple and consecutive your thought, the easier it will be both to keep it in mind and to utter it. The more orderly your plan, the less likely you will be to "get bewildered," or to "lose the thread." Think it out so clearly that the successive parts lead to one another, and then there will be little strain upon your memory. For each point you make, provide at least one good argument and one good illustration, and you can, after a little practice, safely leave the rest to the suggestion of the moment. But so much as this you must have, to be secure. Methods of preparation of course vary extremely; yet I suppose the secret of the composure of an experienced speaker to lie usually in this, that he has made sure beforehand of a sufficient number of good points to carry him through, even if nothing good should occur to him on the spot. Thus wise people, in going on a fishing excursion, take with them not merely their fishing tackle, but a few fish; and then, if they are not sure of their luck, they will be sure of their chowder.

These are some of the simple hints that might be given, in answer to inquiring friends. I can remember when they would have saved me some anguish of spirit; and they may be of some use to others now. I write, then, not to induce any one to talk for the sake of talking,--Heaven forbid!--but that those who are longing to say something should not fancy the obstacles insurmountable, when they are really slight.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: How To Speak In Public