When he published his Autobiography and Personal Recollections in 1870, John B. Gough claimed “twenty-six years' experience as a public speaker” – the vast majority of it earned through almost three decades of delivering speeches at rallies and other events supporting the temperance movement.
Known as the Apostle of Cold Water because of his extensive speaking tours through the US, Canada and the UK on behalf of temperance groups, Gough’s memoirs includes some public speaking wisdom. I have taken the liberty of distilling four lessons from the book, with illustrative excerpts following each.
1. Be prepared for head-scratching introductions
I was once introduced [to an audience] by a Scotchman, who said: “I wish to introduce Mr. Gough, who is to lecture to us on temperance; and I hope he'll prove far better than he looks to be…"
Once the chairman [of a temperance rally] said: "I rise to introduce Mr. Gough, famous in both hemispheres for his sublime, as well as for his ridiculous."
2. Control your gestures while speaking – or at least try to
I am aware that I do occasionally shake my coat tails [while making a speech]. How I acquired the habit I do not know; but I condemn the motion as much as anyone can, and would be grateful to any person who would strike me on my knuckles with a stick whenever I [do so]. I think I could not make a speech with my hands tied. I have never tried it; but I will not make excuses for my gestures. I am often amused [when the organizers of an event at which I will speak], after erecting a platform perhaps twenty feet by fifteen, [ask] me "if I should have room enough?”
Sometimes, when speaking on temperance, I seem to be absolutely engaged in a battle, the enemy before me — not as a man of straw, but the real, living horror; and in the wrestling with that, face to face, hand to hand again — like the blind war-horse when hearing the trumpet's charge — rush on, fearing and caring for nothing, but that I may deal heavy blows, and send the fiend away crippled and howling…In Jersey City, while addressing young men, I felt something of this power over me. I was in a pulpit. On either side of the desk was a marble scroll, with sharp edges, I struck my clenched fist with great force on the sharp edge of that marble; for a moment I saw stars; strange colors danced before my eyes; but I continued speaking more than an hour after the blow.
When I concluded, I dropped on the seat, and the minister threw a glass of water on my face, startled by my paleness. My hand was frightfully swollen and very much discolored; and before morning every nerve from my fingers to my hip, throbbed with pain…
3. Even experienced public speakers get pre-speech jitters
I have often been asked, "Were you ever embarrassed before an audience?" Often the dread of an audience has well-nigh unfitted me for the evening's service; and now, after more than twenty-six years of platform-speaking, I rarely face an audience without a dryness of my lips, and a weakness in my knees. To be sure, it does not last long; but it is distressing for the time being.
There have been occasions when the nervousness and depression previous to addressing an audience, have been of the most intense and distressing character. In Boston, when I had been announced for Tremont Temple, on Sunday evening, for the one hundred and sixty-first lecture in that city, it so far overcame me, that Deacon Grant, with whose family we were staying, became quite alarmed.
All day it weighed heavily on my mind. I could not go to church. As the time for the meeting drew on, my wife accompanied me to the Temple. We reached the door — my heart failed me, and I turned away. My wife tried to cheer me, walked with me — a second time we reached the door, and I again turned back. At length I mustered up courage, and, amid doubt, and trembling with fear, we pressed our way in with the crowd…
4. When things go wrong at the podium – try to see the lighter side
In Colburg, Canada, I met with rather a comical accident. Speaking with great energy, I made a violent gesture with both hands, and tore my coat in the back, from the skirt to the collar. When I heard the rip, and felt the thing go, I said, without thought, “There! I've torn my coat." The chairman of the meeting, who was the Mayor of the city, quickly replied, "I see you have."
The audience laughed; but I was in a quandary. I could make no gesture; I could only flap my fins like a fish; if I attempted to stretch out my hands, the abomination came forward so absurdly, that I dared not attempt a motion, and so concluded my address under some embarrassment.
The next morning the mayor, with two other gentlemen, called on me and introduced a tailor, who took my measure, and before I left the city, a committee of gentlemen waited on me, and made a formal presentation of a new coat, with a neat speech[; and after] the presentation was made, I said: "Gentlemen, I thank you for your gift to me; and now, as this is the result of my accident, permit me to say, I almost wish I had torn my [trousers,] too" — not a very strong expression of gratitude, nor very polite; but the gentlemen took it in good part, and we were very merry together for an hour.