A speaker is not a comet
February 05, 2014
Urgently delivered public speaking advice from the original helicopter dad to his son
You could call him the original “helicopter dad.” Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), was so ambitious for his son’s success that he wrote him hundreds of letters filled with advice—more than 300 in total.
The Earl’s fondest hope was his son would enjoy a long political career, and thus devoted several letters to reflections on how to become a great speaker in Britain’s Parliament. The father’s wishes went unfulfilled, however, as the younger Stanhope died young.
Let’s review some highlights from the Earl’s letters on the art of public speaking. First, the Earl wanted his son to banish the idea that competent speakers owed their success to some magic or special gift:
The vulgar, who are always mistaken, look upon a speaker and a comet with the same astonishment and admiration, taking them both for preternatural phenomena.
Becoming a good speaker was not in itself so difficult, the Earl claimed—if you applied yourself:
…[F]or it is certain that, by study and application, every man can make himself a pretty good Orator; eloquence depending upon observation and care. Every man, if he pleases, may [choose] good words instead of bad ones, may speak properly instead of improperly, may be clear and perspicuous in his recitals, instead of dark and muddy; he may have grace instead of awkwardness in his motions and gestures; and, in short, may be a very agreeable, instead of a very disagreeable speaker, if he will take care and pains.
To the Earl, excellence as a speaker was not just the best way to get ahead as a member of the British parliament—it was the only way. Forget achieving fame and popularity as a fact-spouting policy wonk, the Earl told his son, in so many words:
The nature of our constitution makes eloquence more useful and more necessary in this country than in any other in Europe. A certain degree of good-sense and knowledge is requisite for that as well as for everything else; but beyond that, the purity of diction, the elegancy of style, the harmony of [sentences], a pleasing elocution, and a graceful action, are the things which a public speaker should attend to the most; because his audience certainly does, and understands them the best: or rather, indeed, understands little else.
Key to the Earl’s conception of a great speaker was the idea that audiences will be impressed by the combination of a strong delivery and well-informed remarks—much more impressed than by the mediocre, awkward delivery of the same remarks.
Referring to his own experiences in Parliament, the Earl counseled that while this approach might seem superficial, the truth is that “[t]he world is taken by the outside of things, and we must take the world as it is; you or I cannot set it right.”
With this in mind, the Earl advised his son to practice speaking with all the enthusiasm and energy he could muster—or else find himself far behind in the race to get ahead:
Engage the eyes by your address, air, and motions; soothe the ears, by the elegancy and harmony of your diction: the heart will certainly follow; and the whole man, or woman, will as certainly follow the heart.
I must repeat it to you, over and over again, that with all the knowledge which you may have at present, or hereafter acquire, and with all the merit that ever man had, if you have not a graceful address, liberal and engaging manners, a prepossessing air, and a good degree of eloquence in speaking and writing, you will be nobody: but will have the daily mortification of seeing people, with not one-tenth part of your merit or knowledge, get the start of you, and disgrace you both in company and in business.
Once you’ve gotten in the habit of practicing, the Earl said, you must never stop reinforcing good speaking habits—including by using the dictionary to save yourself embarrassment:
Mind your diction, in whatever language you either write or speak; contract a habit of correctness and elegance. Consider your style, even in the freest conversation, and most familiar letters. After, at least if not before you have said a thing, reflect if you could not have said it better. Where you doubt of the propriety or elegancy of a word or a phrase, consult some good dead or living authority in that language.
More than 200 years before the expression “sound bite” was coined, the Earl urged his son to think about creating sound bites in his future speeches that the audience would repeat after they returned home. The Earl made his point using a memorable comparison between speech and music:
The elegancy of the style, and the turn of the [sentences], make the chief impression upon the hearers. Give them but one or two round and harmonious [sentences] in a speech, which they will retain and repeat, and they will go home as well satisfied, as people do from an opera, humming all the way one or two favorite tunes that have struck their ears and were easily caught. Most people have ears, but few have judgment; tickle those ears, and, depend upon it, you will catch their judgments, such as they are.
The Earl seems to have worried that his son might find this fatherly emphasis on style being as important as substance to be a bit, well, cynical. (Maybe the younger Stanhope seemed too bookish to his father?) Anticipating this, the Earl further reinforced his arguments for cultivating a pleasing style of speech as follows:
[D]o not flatter yourself that all the knowledge, sense, and reasoning in the world will ever make you a popular and applauded speaker, without the ornaments and the graces of style, elocution, and action….
And be convinced of this truth:…the best sense and reason in the world will be as unwelcome in a public assembly, without these ornaments, as they will in public companies, without the assistance of manners and politeness. If you will please people, you must please them in their own way; and as you cannot make them what they should be, you must take them as they are. I repeat it again[:] they are only to be taken by arguments and by what flatters their senses and their hearts.
And one more time: “The effects of a correct and adorned style, of method and perspicuity, are incredible towards persuasion; they often supply the want of reason and argument; but when used in the support of reason and argument, they are irresistible.”
As much ground as the above covers, it represents just a selection from Volume 1 of the Earl’s letters. I’ll go over additional points in a future item for VSOTD.