“A Language That Articulate Sound Can Never Express”

A blind chaplain from the U.S. House of Representatives said speaker and audience connect through the eyes

“Thus, then, as it seems to me, the true power of the speaking man consists in the balanced and serene movement of his intellect, and his near and living connection with his hearers through the eye.” —from Ten Years of Preacher Life, by Rev. William Henry Milburn, 1859

In Rev. William Henry Milburn’s view, a speaker connects with an audience not only with words, but through the eyes:

“Men not only see with their eyes, but hear; for the beaming eye and expressive face speak a language that articulate sound can never express—a language more moving, soft and irresistible than ever entered the soul through the galleries of the ear. Through the eye, the speaker enters into sympathy with his audience, by it he perceives their capacity, reads their wants, and appreciates their condition; [and] by it, they are persuaded of his simplicity, earnestness and faith.”

There’s a tragic aspect to Milburn’s claim that the “eyes have it”—he endured near-total blindness for much of his life, due to a childhood accident.

Despite this obstacle, Milburn became a Methodist preacher and achieved renown in his own time as a speaker. He served three terms as Chaplain of the House of Representatives, and completed international speaking tours. His first term as Chaplain came after he chastised some poorly-behaved members of the House with an improvised sermon. The ashamed Congressmen then pushed his candidacy for the post, perhaps out of penance.

In his memoirs, Milburn claims he needed six years of steady practice as an itinerant preacher “before I gained the power of extempore speech.” In embracing this style of speaking (versus memorizing a speech in advance), Milburn writes, “I was laying up in store for myself many an hour of bitter mortification and chagrin, when, crushed by the weight of gathered crowds, I stood before them almost as a paralyzed imbecile.”

But as he says: “Most things in this life have their price, and he who is willing to pay the full worth of an article can generally have it.” Inspiring words for anyone who is trying to improve their public speaking skills.

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