This post begins a 12-week series in which we’ll discuss what we learned from each lecture in the course “The Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the Greatest Speeches in History,” which is taught by Professor John R. Hale of University of Louisville. 

Churchill once called public speaking “a skill that can turn a commoner into a king,” which aptly describes its importance and potential. Professor Hale asserts that everyone should acquire the skill of public speaking, if only to be able to perform when it comes to ordinary speeches at weddings, funerals, trials, birthdays and the like. He laments that the skill is often devalued and underappreciated today, and he asserts that that must change, as it’s a crucial skill to be able to disseminate ideas in the most effective way possible.

Professor Hale tells us the story of Demosthenes of Athens during this introductory lecture. Because his father wasn’t around, womenfolk brought up Demosthenes unconventionally, outside the public sphere. He was isolated for much of his childhood, left alone with his books, and therefore not given the proper guidance and training a boy would have typically received in ancient Greece. He was passionate about public speaking, though, and he read speech after speech after speech, memorizing and then practicing their delivery.

Demosthenes had to overcome several weaknesses, including a speech impediment, Professor Hales says. He put a pebble in his mouth to train his mouth to be understood, and because he was so frail and scrawny, he ran up hills while speaking to train his body to become used to fatigue. Next, he went to speak in front of the ocean to strengthen his voice, so he’d be able to be heard in large gatherings and crowds.

Following all that dedicated practice, he went to a court appearance to fight for his father’s inheritance– his first attempt at public speaking in front of a large group. He was successful and won the case. From there, he began preparing a speech to the Assembly about military reform. And at this second speech, he made no real impression at all. Yet, a year later, after serving as a ship’s captain, he gave another speech, which was wildly successful because he spoke from personal experience (a characteristic that Hale says is essential in public speaking. One must speak from personal knowledge to boost credibility and garner respect.)

Professor Hale concludes the story of Demosthenes of Athens by pointing out several things we can learn from his experience. The first is simply to get started; it’s imperative to face the difficulty, face the fear and face the struggle. Second, practice, practice and practice some more. Demosthenes was successful because he practiced religiously. Third, it’s important to cross train; don’t limit yourself to just working on delivery, but rather run to build up stamina, read historical speeches to feel inspired, shout your speech to work up volume, and on and on.

Fourth, memorization is key. Practice memorizing beloved speeches, and do what you can to memorize your own, if only to be as familiar with it as possible. And last but certainly not lease, persevere. Demosthenes’ second speech fell flat on its face; it made no impression whatsoever on the audience. Don’t expect to succeed your very first time, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t succeed. You’re your own worst critic, Professor Hale says, so keep your head held high, learn from your mistakes and continue on.

Tune in next week for Lessons from History via Patrick Henry. 


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