The best advice a father ever gave a son (about public speaking, anyway)
July 30, 2014
"We are so made [that] we love to be pleased, [more] than to be informed; [new] information [shared through a speech] is, in a certain degree, mortifying, as it implies our previous ignorance, [so] it must be sweetened to be palatable."
An earlier VSOTD post excerpted some advice on public speaking provided by the Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) to Philip Stanhope, his son. While Philip died regrettably young, the Earl’s thoughts on excellence in speech-making (among many other topics) have been happily preserved for all time, through the posthumous publication of the hundreds of letters that the devoted father wrote to his boy.
Like any “helicopter dad,” the Earl had a set of key messages for Philip, and embellished them with colorful literary flourishes and figures of speech.
This second post will conclude our look at the Earl’s advice on public speaking. As noted earlier, the Earl hoped that Philip would one day launch a political career in Britain’s Parliament. Key to the success of this venture, the Earl explained in one letter, would be young Philip’s speaking skills:
The manner of your speaking is [fully] as important as the matter, as more people have ears to be tickled, than understandings to judge.
No man can make a fortune or a figure in this country, without speaking, and speaking well, in public. If you will persuade, you must first please, and if you will please, you must tune your voice to harmony, you must articulate every syllable distinctly, your [emphasis] and cadences must be strongly and properly marked, and the whole together must be graceful and engaging. If you do not speak in [such a] manner, you had much better not speak at all.
The Earl was particularly concerned about reports that Philip had something of a mild speech impediment:
If there is any particular consonant which you have a difficulty in articulating, as I think you had with the “r,” utter it millions and millions of times, till you have uttered it right…In short, lay aside every book and every thought that does not directly tend to this great object, absolutely decisive of your future fortune and figure.
Another letter includes the following observation by the Earl (himself a political veteran) about how, in the parliamentary arena, speaking style usually trumped the substance of one’s words:
Know that no man can make a figure in this country, but by Parliament. Your fate depends upon your success there as a speaker; and, take my word for it, that success turns much more upon manner than matter.
In the same letter, the Earl held up William Pitt (later the Earl of Chatham) as a model speaker for Philip, noting that Pitt’s polished delivery more than compensated for his sometimes-shaky grasp of the topic of the hour:
Mr. Pitt…has very little Parliamentary knowledge; his [subject] matter is generally flimsy, and his arguments often weak –but his eloquence is superior, his action graceful, his enunciation just and harmonious; his [sentences] are well turned, and every word he makes use of is the very best, and the most expressive that can be used in that place…
If the Earl’s most cherished hope for Philip to become a well-regarded member of Parliament, what the father seemed to fear more than anything else was for the son to enter that assembly and then becoming known as a dull, plodding speaker– a mediocre performer destined to be a second-stringer, while more articulate members of Parliament went on to enjoy fame and influence (emphasis added):
From [Pitt’s example], draw the obvious conclusion. The same thing holds…as true in conversation, where even trifles, elegantly expressed, well looked, and accompanied with graceful action, will ever please, beyond all the home-spun, unadorned sense in the world.
Reflect, on one side, how you feel within yourself, while you are forced to suffer the tedious, muddy, and ill-timed narration of some awkward fellow, even though [his subject matter] may be interesting; and on the other hand, with what pleasure you attend to the relation of a much less interesting matter, when elegantly expressed, genteelly turned, and gracefully delivered…The same things differently expressed [and] delivered, cease to be the same things.
The Earl takes a different tack to make the same points in one last letter we’ll look at in this post.
Strong arguments backed by solid evidence won’t be enough to make you into a popular speaker, the Earl warned Philip – to leave a lasting impression, listeners need to in awe of your sparkling delivery, rather than appreciative of learning new information you’ve shared:
Let awkward, ungraceful, inelegant, and dull fellows say what they will in behalf of their solid [subject] matter, and strong reasonings; and let them despise all those graces and ornaments, which engage the senses and captivate the heart; they will find (though they will possibly wonder why) that their rough unpolished matter, and their unadorned, coarse, but strong arguments, will neither please nor persuade; but, on the contrary, will [lose an audience’s] attention, and excite disgust.
We are so made [that] we love to be pleased, [more] than to be informed; [new] information [shared through a speech] is, in a certain degree, mortifying, as it implies our previous ignorance, [so] it must be sweetened to be palatable.