How to Speak in Public

Reprint suggested by Elder H. A. Vandeman, of Minneapolis, Minn. Copyrighted, 1940. by the Kings-way Press, Incorporated, New York City. Reprinted by permission.

By ELISABETH FERGUSON VON HESSE, Famous Voice and Speech Teacher

If you're going to make a speech—congratulations ! You will never have a bet­ter chance to get acquainted with yourself. In the order of their importance, you have these three questions to consider: How do you look ? How do you sound? Do you have something to say?

Your first contact with your audience is be­fore you speak, when they get their first glimpse of you. . . . Choose a straight, hard, platform chair of average height. But that is not enough. You must sit calmly and relaxed. . . . Act poised and unruffled, and it will actually help to make you so.

Days before you are to appear, make a date with yourself before a full-length mirror. Imagine that you have just risen from your chair and are walking forward with purpose and confidence to address your audience. Your head should be held proudly, set right on top of your spinal column, and not sticking out like a turtle's. Flatten the abdomen, bring the chest up and forward and the shoulders down —not only down, but loose and relaxed. Those free shoulders of yours not only are important to your posture, but they help you to talk well. Shoulders held high, unconsciously hunched, tighten the throat muscles and make the voice harsh and tense.

Now look at your feet as you walk toward the mirror. Do both feet "toe out" unbecom­ingly? They ought to track in a straight line, one foot about two inches in front of the other. Unless you have been a tightrope walker with a circus, I am sure the practice of this technique will benefit you.. .

While you are speaking, never allow your body weight to settle into your waistline, or back on your heels. Carry your weight well forward on the balls of your feet, and you will have that desired "on your toes" look. It's hard to be the master of the situation if you just follow your stomach around. A poised tone can come only from a poised body. . . .

A misconception that starts many speakers off on the wrong foot is the notion that a bored, sophisticated expression gives a touch of the exclusive and exotic. All such an expression does is to make you look uninteresting. Bores are people who are bored. Not long ago a friend and I were members of a lecture audi­ence. The speaker of the Occasion was a fa­mous woman novelist. My irrepressible friend whispered to me: ''She looks like baby did after he swallowed a panty button—has something inside but can't get it out !" And that was ex­actly the way the speaker's talk sounded—but­toned, up ! You won't run the least risk of looking that way if you know your subject dis­turbingly well, and let the joy you have had in preparing your subject illuminate your face. All you have to do about your facial expression is to leave your mask at home. Audiences are keen to respond to speakers who are interested enough to be interesting.

Now you are standing before your audience. . . The introduction is over ; you are ready to /111 start talking; so now you—Wait a moment.141/ It is a time of measuring. You are measuring the audience, and they are measuring you. Be­fore you utter a sound, allow this pregnant mo­ment of silence to slip past. If you plan it. it will increase your confidence, and will give the audience the impression that you are wholly at ease as a public speaker. This is the time to take one or two wide breaths. A wide breath is one that stretches at the sides an imaginary rubber belt around your waist. This kind of breathing is an excellent cure for stage fright. it gives you time to get your speech machinery organized, ready to launch your opening sen­tence. Wide breathing steadies your nerve, quiets your thumping circulation, bolsters a queasy stomach.

It also stretches that all-important muscle, your diaphragm, which forms the "floor" of your speaking voice. It is a suspension bridge of muscle which dominates your voice con­trol. Breathe at your waist, and don't lift your chest. You talk only as well as you breathe. If you wish an easy, floating tone, it must flow from a steady column of air impelled by the bellowslike action of the intercostal and waist muscles. You can't get such a column from high breathing, which gives instead a thin, high, unbalanced voice.

There is always the possibility that you won't recognize those first sounds as being your own voice ! So, if you sound like a phoebe bird, • don't become panicky. The first sentence of a speech is often higher-pitched than normal. Pull your voice down a notch or two, and roar out at your audience just to show them you aren't afraid of the big, bad wolf called fear. This may be a bit startling to your audience, but it will arrest their attention, and think of what it is doing for you! Resides, the best you can do will not be much of a roar at this beginning moment. Once you are started, there will be little danger of stage fright get­ting to first base:

Practice in Front of Your Mirror

All of these things can be—and should be—practiced in front of that long mirror of yours. There are other measures necessary in estab­lishing a good speech pattern. Cultivate a sen­sitive ear. Learn to listen creatively to other voices as well as to your own. "Is my voice too high ? Is it nasal ? Do I talk too fast ? Am I clumsy in the use of my speech tools?" are all questions you might well ask yourself. The answers come more easily if you form the habit of listening intelligently to other voices. We all "speak by ear," unconsciously imitating the kind of speech we hear. When you hear a high-pitched, penetrating voice, you can con­sciously decide that you will not split the air with similar tones. If you are pleased with the richness of a friend's voice, imitate the sound by trying to create in your own speech pattern the same lovely quality.

Above all, make a real effort to speak plainly. Say it, now—"Speak plainly." Say it several times, and do it as well as say it. Does a frozen upper lip that scarcely moves, shut out the fire from your speech like an asbestos curtain in a theater ? This is where a mirror will help you check up on your speech pattern. Look into it, say, "Pick it up ! Pick it up ! Pick it up !" and see that your upper lip does it. Repeat phrases before the mirror, and check on the flexibility and willingness to move of your lips, your lower jaw, your tongue. If practiced at home, it may prevent persons in your audience from muttering to neighbors during your speech, "I can't understand a word."

One more type of speech exercise you can practice privately. That's the business of getting "ups and downs" into your speech. Most voices have a speaking range of only three or four tones, making them monotonous, drab, and flat. Develop a range of at least six or seven tones—ten tones are better, though of course you will use the extremes but seldom. Don't be afraid of your deep tones. Most people overwork the higher notes.

Let yourself go in reading a poem or some dramatic bit. . . . Strive to find beauty in your own tones. Sing when you talk. You'll get to like your own voice ! Use melody artistic­ally and adequately, and your audience will re­mark, "What a lovely voice !" Fit your speech tempo to the thought you are expressing. Some ideas call for rapid utterance; others should be delivered deliberately. Too much verbal speed requires effort on the part of listeners to under­stand you, and does not give time for singing tones to follow up.

You can have excellent delivery and some­thing vital to say, and still rate as an uninter­esting speaker if you don't organize your ma­terial well. Fortunately, this does not require genius, but it does demand effort and ordinary intelligence. . . .

Your first few sentences should dispel the in­itial stiffness between you and your audience. You will plan your first words carefully to establish a friendly group relationship. It is well to memorize the first sentence of your speech. This sentence should be arresting, . . . as Dr. Richard Burton said when lecturing at Chatr­tauqua, New York, "Good afternoon, Human Beings !" That made me sit right up in my seat ! . . .

What you say during the first ten seconds of your speech is of vital importance. Light a tire and keep it burning in the minds of your hearers. Don't be stingy with your crucial lines. If you do, your audience will be "ho-humming" in no time. No, indeed, this tech­nique is not for you. You must make your au­dience come alive with your very first sentence.

There are only a few taboos. Leave the per­pendicular pronoun out of your first sentences. Another personal pronoun pitfall is "you." To illustrate, do not say, "You must not—." It has a holier-than-thou flavor. In this case, substitute "we," thereby including yourself with the audience. This gives more leeway for your remarks. All audiences enjoy a speaker who directs humor at himself.

Build Your Speech Around a Central Pattern

Of course your speech should be built about a central theme, a motif to which your refer­ences constantly revert during your discourse. Your introduction should give a blueprint of what is to follow. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick does this superbly. With a number of key phrases introduced, the lecture follows a log­ical pattern, and each phrase calls to mind its preceding thought. Anecdotes, illustrations, quotations, provide the color and drama and human interest that make a speech come alive. Questions are useful, too—they flatter your au­dience and keep you from sounding too cock­sure.

Your climax, your last sentence, your exit line, should be as carefully chosen as your first sentence. There are nine and twenty ways of constructing tag lines, and every single one of them is right—the main point being that you must know it is a climax and treat it as such. This last line may be the only one your audi­ence will remember. Like your opening sen­tence, it should be memorized. Why ? You may have to finish your speech before you had planned, because of program difficulties or other speakers' overrunning their time. Or--though I hope not—you may become confused in the middle of your speech and have to make a forced landing, which can be made smoothly if you have your exit line handy. No one will know you hadn't planned it that way!

Haven't you ever listened to a speaker who. after an hour or so, arrives at what is appar­ently the end of his discourse—only to go on and on for another twenty minutes while you . . . get more and more restless as you realize you are missing the last bus? The pleasure of the lecture is spoiled when the speaker does not know how to conclude.—Your Life, April, 1940.


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By ELISABETH FERGUSON VON HESSE, Famous Voice and Speech Teacher

June 1941

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