How to speak

The late Christopher Hitchens, when asked by one of his students at the University of California, Berkeley for advice on how to write, responded with the question “before you try to write, ask yourself this: Can you speak? Yes? And when you speak, do others want to listen?”

Investment in people’s speaking skills has been very much neglected of late. Very few people are taught how to speak well and even fewer think to improve their oratory capabilities at all. We can all easily spot a great speaker and a poor speaker, but do we know what it is that separates the two? How can we learn to improve our own speaking skills?

Heinrich Heine proclaimed that ‘a fool may talk, but a wise man speaks’. If you have ever caught yourself daydreaming during a presentation or struggling to follow a speech, it’s likely that the pontificator is merely talking, punctuating his twisted and long-winded sentences with fillers and general disfluency. Linguistic research indicates that the overuse of such non-pathological disfluencies can provide a window into the speaker’s emotional state. It may not be a surprise to find that disjointed and chaotic speech is more likely to be delivered by those experiencing distraction and an inability to focus. Stress may be a factor in this, although in certain people this can result in more succinct speech.

In order to make sure you are fully focused on what you want to say, you need to prepare your body, not just your mind to deliver your thoughts and ideas. This means things like making sure you sleep well, get some exercise and control your breathing and levels of anxiety. Hitchens himself, usually renowned for his ruthless eloquence in debate, was occasionally found stumbling over his words when interviewed in the early mornings. One only needed to observe the dark circles under his eyes and his dishevelled hair to guess that he had been up into the early hours drinking, writing and repeating. If, like Hitchens, you can combine a readily accessible education with unfaltering logic and a rapier wit, you will undoubtedly be able to pull off giving speeches, presentations, debates and interviews with an obvious hangover. Many will still be impressed even though you are, in fact, winging it. Unfortunately, that is not the case for most of us. A good night’s sleep and a healthy body are pre-requisites for most oratory ventures.

Don’t try to equate eloquence with wordiness. Use specialised vocabulary in order to convey precise meanings to an audience which can fully understand its meaning. If you are using jargon or ‘big words’ in order to impress your audience, you will fail, as will your message. Equally, keep any clarifying allusions to events which are readily accessible in the minds of your audience. Referencing the dispute between the German humanist Johann Reuchlin and the monk Johannes Pfefferkorn of theDominican Orderto an audience of investment bankers is not going to get them to write any cheques. Keep the message clear and concise – it will serve you well and you will be appreciated for it.

Formulate your sentences before you speak, thus helping you to avoid contaminating your words with fillers and other oratory vomitus. Never be afraid to remain silent until you are ready. Your listeners will be thankful that you appear to be considering your words carefully rather than simply spraying your words around, shotgun-like, in the hope that you will hit upon something worth hearing. Don’t reword and repeat your phrases unless for extra-special emphasis. Shortening the length of your monologue increases the value of each word. Keep in mind the words of Cicero: ‘Brevity is a great charm of eloquence.’

Related to the first point about your emotional state is your confidence. Confidence in speaking can only be gained by practising. It is natural to feel nervous and your audience knows that. Smile and think of something which brings joy into your life before you start. If you haven’t had much practice speaking publicly and feel intimated, let your audience know this. By presenting yourself as an underdog confronting a challenge you will gain both their emotional support and respect. Don’t speak too slowly and make eye contact with your listeners. If this is impossible due to the lighting arrangements, you will have to imagine some enthusiastic listeners to make eye contact with (often a much more pleasurable experience).

In terms of preparation, it is worth doing a couple of trial runs in front of the mirror. It is fine to keep notes to be used as prompts, but you should never insult your audience by reading from a script. You could simply have emailed them instead of wasting their time. Preparation over the longer term should involve plenty of reading and discussion in order to pick up vocabulary and build fluency.

Lastly, if you can show your audience that you have an emotional connection with your words, you will have taken great strides towards winning them over. AS Washington Irvine said,

“There is an eloquence in enthusiasm that is not to be doubted.”