I had conducted many jury trials in state court before my first jury trial in federal court. One of the differences in federal court was that the attorneys had the ability, after the trial was over, to review the written critiques that the jurors had left behind.
Reading these comments was eye-opening to me, in ways both pleasant and unpleasant. Even though I had won my case in this instance, the comments from the jurors made it clear that how we perceive ourselves is not how others perceive us. This knowledge can be unsettling. But improvement only comes from hearing harsh truths, and then acting on them. With regard to speaking in front of a group, the speaker himself is as much a part of the message as are his words. It is thus critical to understand the elements that make for an effective delivery. A successful speech (or oral presentation of any kind) results from the successful deployment of many different factors. We will here deal only with the topic of delivery. Other topics, such as gesture, positions, arrangement of arguments, etc., will be dealt with in future discussions here.
Accent. The speaker’s accent should aim for a middle-ground. It should not sound overly rustic, country, uneducated, foreign, or unpolished. No one wants to hear a dull, coarse, effeminate, uninformed, or tiresome droning.
Pronunciation. Elocution is very much neglected. Clipped, chopped, or truncated words or sentences should be avoided. At the same time, each word must be given its full quality. Avoid mush-mouthed, lazy speech, which produces the impression on the listener that the speaker is slovenly and disorganized. Those who have speech problems can take steps to resolve them. Speech therapy has made incredible advances over the past forty years or so, and there are numerous techniques that can be used to improve voice resonance and elocution. Demosthenes, one of the greatest speakers of antiquity, overcame his lisp by running up and down hills with a mouthful of pebbles, while delivering speeches. In this way he improved is ability to aspirate and pronounce his words.
Balance of vowels and consonants. Every person has an innate sense of rhythm. Some of us use it more than others, but everyone has some feeling for the proper cadence of his language. This is why poetry and songs have universal appeal. Avoid grating combinations of consonants, in an alliteration. This attracts undue attention. The best effect to strive for is to choose words that balance out the sentence, so that it is not too much weighted in one type or quality of sound.
Proper breathing. Pauses occur naturally in a sentence, if only we are attuned to its cadence. Sometimes it is necessary to recover one’s breath by taking a pause; and sometimes it is necessary to pause to allow a point to sink in to an audience’s mind. Punctuation in writing developed out of sensitivity to this idea. Do not be afraid to breathe, but avoid overt panting, wheezing, or impression of difficulty in breathing. Nothing is more irritating than respiration that is forced or overly audible. In this connection, we can say that physical fitness plays a key role. No good speaker was ever in poor physical shape. One must have endurance and stamina to be effective.
Voice quality. The speaker’s voice should cut through the air and land on the listeners’ ears with distinct effect. We as speakers should strive to moderate our voices to middle ground between high and low tones. Low tones are not distinct and fail to convey proper passion. High tones are straining on the nerves of the listener, and tire out the speaker quickly. Imagine the vocal cords to be similar to the strings of an instrument: tightening the vocal cords produces a sound that is thin and shrill. So we should aim for a moderate tone, and then feel free to “tighten” or “slacken” our voice when the emotion of the speech calls for it.
Adaptation of voice. The voice must moreover be adapted to the emotion of the subject matter and the circumstances of the speech. Do not force the voice too much, as it can be fragile and fail unexpectedly. Speech should leave the mouth at a steady pace, not fly out in a confused jumble of words.
Emotion. It helps to believe in the subject matter. The listeners of your speech are its judges. They will be more easily and convincingly swayed if they detect honest and sincere emotion on your part. False emotion is instantly detected. The general rule of emotion is this: all honest emotion is good, as long as it is brief and controlled. Anger, sadness, and grief can all be harnessed, but they must be seen as sincere, and they must not outstay their welcome.
Digressions. A digression is a spoken detour from the subject matter of the speech. Just like the hiker who may find himself lost in the trees if he wanders off the trail, so the speaker may find himself flummoxed and confounded by the disorienting effects of a digression that went on too long. If a digression is memorized and practiced, it will have a greater chance of success. Unless you intend to deliver your speech word-for-word, do not memorize it. Rely instead on bullet-points or an outline. Attempting to memorize the speech will cause parts of it to interfere with your delivery, and disrupt your cadence.
Position of the body. Of all the body parts that listeners will focus on, the head is perhaps the most significant. The head can convey meaning in many subtle ways. It should appear upright and at a natural inclination on the neck, neither tilting to one side or another, or moving around excessively. We must remember that, when delivering a speech, everything is magnified. Small movements seem to be big movements. Small twists and turns of the head can appear to be major distractions. So we must train our bodies in this regard, and remove all sort of body tics and twitches that may detract from the message.
Too much head movement conveys mental instability. If the head is thrown back too much, it may convey arrogance, even if this is not intended. A head tilting to one side indicates laziness. If the head give the appearance of stiffness and rigidity, it may indicate an inner violence.
The face, of course, is of paramount importance. And in the face, the eyes dominate. Are the eyes and its movements shifty, squint, fixed, darting about, overly wide, stupid, cross, or sleepy? These are the honest questions that the speaker must ask himself. In this matter we should rely on the input of a trusted friend or confidant. It is often not possible to gain an accurate appraisal of one’s own eyes and face. The eyes also interact with the eyelids, cheeks, and brows to produce their effects. So the speaker must consider this entire picture.
With regard to the eyes, the speaker should be making constant eye contact with his listeners. Failing to do so will be seen as unconvincing and weak. So much, then, for some basic guidelines for the proper delivery of a speech. Future articles will take up related subjects in speech-making and oratory.
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