The Art of Public Speaking

The charm of the spoken word, like the melody and harmony of music, has a way to penetrate our souls. No script can enshrine the spoken word of a master to its full allure. Its appeal, force, and warmth are diminished without the heart of the speaker breathing life in it.

 Spoken word has been the most potent agent propelling the progress of mankind. Imagine the impact of the few words that Heraclitus spoke, the revolution wrought by a few utterances of Socrates, the inspiration of a few sayings of Buddha, the force of a few moral precepts of Christ, or the endless resonance of Imam Hussain’s words spoken in several instances on the day of Ashura. Indeed their words have meant a lot more to mankind than the countless volumes written through the ages on those words. The force of their message lies in the fact that all of them were supremely evolved and impeccably integrated personalities. Their word derived its value from the depths whence it sprang. Were not all the significant ideological movements in the history of mankind prompted by the words spoken by their pioneers in a certain manner and in harmony with the pulse of the moment in history?

I have always been intrigued as to what elements animate the speech of a great orator and which cannot be embalmed in the written word to the same effect. I have had the opportunity to listen to and observe some of the great orators – some of them posthumously. These include the likes of Winston Churchill, J F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, Barrack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, Abul Kalam Azad, Allama Rasheed Turabi and many others. A study of such consummate speakers helps one to appreciate the worth of the art of speaking in public. Hence, one may ask what makes a great orator, a skilled debater, or an engaging conversationalist. If I were asked to answer this based on my observation of great speakers, it is this: a great speaker is one who has the knack of establishing a direct communion between himself and his audience to the extent that when he speaks his listeners find the meaning of what underlines his words more appealing than the words, thus ensuring that the perception of meaning becomes the paramount phenomenon with his listeners. It is not just about the words uttered by the speaker, it is about the process that links up the soul of the speaker with that of the listeners. Thus, for the listeners, the ideas and thoughts enshrined in the words is what matters in understanding what the speaker is attempting to convey. It is not the fire-works of high-sounding epithets but the meaning that strikes us in the speeches of great speakers. How great speakers strike communion with their audience cannot be understood through an intellectual investigation. It is as mysterious as great musical symphonies.

As A. G. Gardiner explains, all art is about creating the maximum of effect with the minimum of effort. All great art derives its power and impact by discarding the unessential. Ghalib’s one ghazal can freeze our blood whereas a lesser poet may have to write a whole book to create half the effect. The artist reveals through his ability to penetrate deep into the heart of things. As one can gauge by now, I tend to equate oratory to music. Both require the mastery of means before the ability to express.

So what can one glean from great orators in terms of the art of public speaking? First of all a good speaker must have an excellent command of the language and mastery over subject matter and must be completely attuned with the thought content of his age. This plus a cultivated voice and endearing style constitute the mastery of the means as a prelude to the creation of effect through his art. Breadth of vision illuminated by depth of feelings lends clarity to the speech. Any speaker worthy of respect must be factually accurate and comprehensive. Especially, in our age when all factual information can be easily verified, which means that a speaker has to acquire all relevant details about his subject. The more your speech is loaded by compelling facts, the more your powerful ideas will inspire your listeners.

Politics is the most fertile field for powerful oratory and therefore most of the renowned public speakers have been politicians. Political speech ranges from mesmerizing oratory to inspiring conviction in public to debating skills for presenting the party viewpoint in the legislature to the facility of persuasion for advocating one’s interest at the negotiating table. In any country where democratic institutions are rife, there is a great deal of opportunity for public speaking. However, in our country the art of oratory is yet to be cultivated. I have not seen many talented public speakers in Pakistan. The utterances of mass speakers in Pakistan are often cheap and useless. Long on rhetoric and short on substance and, more often than not, badly researched and poorly delivered. Most public speeches are devoid of any new or powerful idea. Our politicians are not much different from our religious speakers. They do not, with some respectable exceptions, speak with the object of informing the public mind and providing it with the bearings to reach conclusions on its own. Most of our religious and political speakers shout in an unrefined manner just to win the public applause. Their speeches are not focused on what their listeners need but on what they want. Their emotionally charged discourse appeals to the superficial layers of people’s religious or political consciousness. They incite and misguide instead of focusing people’s minds on great and good in life. Very few have the will to rise above the temptation to win cheap applause and chasten and purify the public taste.

I say this to make the point that in order to rouse the hearts of his audiences to their depths a speaker must himself have a noble heart of his own that serves the higher cause of truth. In Emerson’s words we must heed ‘what the ages say against the hours’. We must be founded in the eternal verities of life. As Nelson Mandela’s life shows us, the bigger the man, the richer the quality of his soul, and greater the level of life he has attained, the stronger is fated to be his appeal and more enduring the effect of the words he chooses to utter. There is no persuasion in the word of a perfidious person except for what is ugly in life, such as bigotry, ignorance, and hatred. Of such persons, we have a glut unfortunately. Nobility of character allows a man to use the rare gift of public speaking in the service of a higher cause. Such men employ this gift to educate and elevate those around them. Such men are rare, I hear you mutter. Yes indeed, but these rare men are the ones who matter the most in human history.

To me the first and foremost thing about speaking in public is that we must not speak unless we have something to say. Wagging the tongue or babbling in itself is not speech; even animals have the faculty to make noise to draw attention to themselves. We have to make sure that our speech is loaded with meaning so that our attention is riveted on the meaning of what we have to say while we speak. Only then can we choose the best words for the meanings we are looking to suggest. Approached like this, speaking becomes an uplifting endeavour and a spiritual experience. Then we have to be clear and avoid being vague or obscure. In order to be clear we must speak in logical order of the content – chronological, arithmetical, analytically progressive etc. This keeps the audience’s interest alive and helps them follow us point by point. Speakers who are suffering from confusion of thought or lack of knowledge cannot cover it up with enigmatic phraseology. However, in negotiations sometime it helps to be obscure with a clear purpose in mind.

None of the great speakers I have observed delivered their speeches to impress the listeners with their mastery of words. Such ornamental speech is of no enduring worth. Yes, good speakers do use words like embroidery to enhance the value of speech they stitch together but never as a substitute for substance. While in Pakistan the desire to impress is unfortunately often synonymous with the desire to persuade and convince, the two are not the same. All great speech is about strong, simple, and concrete word. Lengthy rhetorical perorations are worthless in the hustle and bustle of our world today. We can use our peculiar strengths to save our speech from dullness. For example, some of us have a good command of poetry, some are masters at recounting anecdotes, some tell personal stories with flair, and some excel at telling humorous stories and jokes. However, one must know and draw upon one’s strength instead of trying every trick in the trade. But let’s always be short and relevant. The modern minds don’t forgive irrelevant arguments and unrelated anecdotes. But, still being dull is of greater detriment to a speaker than being irrelevant. We must also know to adjust the sound and speed of our delivery according to our content, train of thoughts, and audience. Great speakers know to strike the natural rhythm between the minds of the listeners and the mind of the speaker. I personally hate the speakers reading from a written text, except when it is warranted for formal reasons. To me they are public readers and not public speakers and I have no interest in their reading skills. They may as well email me what they have to say. The last important bit is that a speaker must know when to stop completely in tune with the appetite, interest, and patience of his listeners.

And so should a writer!

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