Speaking and speechwriting: Kicking it old-school

Timeless speechwriting advice from a Civil War hero, and instructor at the National School of Elocuation and Oratory

“When an orator stands before an audience, shall he expect to overwhelm them by his eloquence? Such a result is possible, but not probable; and it can never be safely calculated upon. If persons attempt to be greatly eloquent on all occasions, they are apt to end by becoming ridiculous. Good sense and solid usefulness are better objects of endeavor [when speaking].”


–from Extempore Speech: How to Acquire and Practice It by Rev. William Pittenger, 1883

By all accounts, William Pittenger lived a full life. After receiving a Medal of Honor for his Civil War service, Pittenger became a clergyman. He later served as an instructor at the National School of Elocution and Oratory in Philadelphia.

Pittenger’s book Extempore Speech is about 270 pages long. A good chunk of the first 150 pages of the book is a carefully camouflaged disguised sales pitch—not for Philadelphia’s National School of Elocution, but for the idea that, with patient practice and plenty of rehearsal time, the average person can speak comfortably before an audience, without relying on notes or memorizing a speech in advance.

It is in the last 150 pages that Pittenger doles out advice. Regarding introductory remarks, for example, he advises keeping things simple, and starting off with a brief (not cloying) compliment to the audience, or mention of some current event or item of local interest relevant to the subject matter of the speech, or a short quotation.

It’s best not to expect too much from the introduction in any event, Pittenger says: “Some inattention [on the part of the audience at the start of a speech] may be expected and patiently borne with at first. Part of the opening words may be lost [on the audience] – an additional reason for not making them of capital importance to the address. It is useless to try to by loud tones and violent manner to dispel indifference.” Rather, with a confident delivery, “one by one the audience will listen” as the speaker proceeds.

And avoid being too ambitious with introductions, he counsels: “A great calamity may come to a speaker from a bad introduction. Speakers who are great in everything else often fail at this point. Some make their introductions too complicated, and thus defeat their own end, as surely as the engineer who gives his railroad such steep grades that no train can pass over it. Others deliver a string of mere platitudes and weary their audience from the beginning.”

As for the middle of the speech, again, Pittenger praises simplicity: “No sentence should be introduced for mere glitter or sparkle: a single unnecessary word may require others to justify or explain it, and thus may ruin a whole discourse. The danger of showy language in speech is far greater than in writing, for if the writer is drawn too far from his subject, he can strike out the offending sentences and try again, while the speaker has but one trial.”

And once the speech is done, the speaker’s work is not over, from Pittenger’s view. He advises anyone who wants to improve to “review the exact words” of the speech as delivered, so that “pet phrases, which might not be otherwise noticed” and “faults of expression, and especially the profusion of words” can be noted and banished from future speeches. Through this exercise, we will realize that “we could often write the discourse in one-fourth the words employed in delivery,” which will assist anyone who wants to achieve a more compact, precise style of speaking in future.

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