The “Art of Sitting Down”

(and other hints on speech-making)

By Neil Hrab, rhetoric editor, Vital Speeches of the Day

In his 1876 book The Arts of Writing, Reading, and Speaking, British lawyer Edward William Cox provides advice on four kinds of speeches. These are: speeches at court (including to juries); speeches in church; speeches in elected bodies; and election campaign speeches.

In addition to all the usual advice one would expect, Cox also includes tips on what he calls “the art of sitting down.” What does he mean? He defines this as knowing “when to stop, or how to stop” a speech. Cox explains as follows:

How few speakers have mastered this [art]!…How often do we see those who have spoken well mar the effect of all that has gone before by an unhappy ending! They wind up feebly, or, which is worse, they do not wind up at all. They appear to be coming to a close, but, just when we expect them to sit down, they start off again upon some new path, and wander about drearily, perhaps repeat this process many times, to the sore trial of the patience of the audience, and withal are further than ever from the end they seek.

Strive to avoid such a calamity. Better any defect at the close than a protracted ending. If you have not got up a formal climax, content yourself with stopping when you have said what you have to say even although it may not be with the flourish you desire. If you do not win a burst of applause, you will give no offence. You will obtain credit for good sense, at least, if not for eloquence ; and certainly the former is the more useful faculty for the vast majority of purposes for which the art of speaking is required to be exercised in the business of life.

Cox’s advice to seek “credit for good sense” over eloquence, one might add, also goes for the answers that speakers lob back at the audience during the now-customary quarter-hour of post-speech questions and answers. A mistake-free, terse answer is to be preferred to a wobbly, flourish-heavy response.

Does Cox always advise his readers to play things safe, and go for safe, uncontroversial messages? Not at all. When you have to throw caution to the wind as a speaker (like when you are trying to sway a jury), Cox says, don’t hold back:

Sometimes, through rarely, the occasion will arise when it will be your duty to appeal to the feelings of your jury. Then do it thoroughly. Throw your whole heart into the work. Do not halt half-way ; do not fear that you will go too far; I never yet saw a speaker fail from excess of emotion, but I have seen many fail from lack of it.

If it becomes your business to appeal to the feelings at all, there is scarcely a limit to the sweep of the chords; all may be pressed into your service to produce the one tone it is your purpose to evoke. But remember—and I repeat the rule yet once again, for it is the golden one that lies at the foundation of the art of oratory—effectually to kindle the emotions of others you must yourself be moved; to make them feel you must feel; a mere acted part will not answer.

Sympathy is the secret string by which the emotions are awakened, and there is no sympathy [from an audience] with a sham, however well disguised and cleverly acted.

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