Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Speaking Advice from Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson began his career on the lecture circuit in the mid 1830s and continued giving lectures until his death fifty years later. This included several European lecture tours. As with Mark Twain, Emerson’s speaking activities had a two-fold purpose: to supplement his income and to promote his writings.

Some of Emerson’s best advice on speaking actually precedes his experience on the lecture tour. It comes from a July 15, 1828 letter from Emerson to his younger brother, Charles, in which Emerson commented on Charles’ valedictorian speech. We don’t know if the letter was ever sent, and given its tone it may simply have been Emerson’s private outlet for his feelings. Either way, the letter has a lesson for all speakers and is as relevant today as it was almost 200 years ago. Here are selected passages.

There is very good management of the voice, fine tones, varied and delicate sounds—some that are music to hear; there is very elegant and very nervous [i.e., sensitive] gesture; and these are used to convey beautiful and forcible periods indeed a very finished oration—to all who have a mind to hear it. There’s the rub—you may hear it or not as you choose. The orator leaves you to your option. He does not address you. He has chalked round him a circle on the floor and within that he exhibits these various excellences to all the curious. . . . So Mr. E. with noble elements for eloquence, was all but eloquent. I felt that that voice should have thrilled me as a trumpet. I only heard it with pleasure. I felt that he should have made me laugh and cry at his will. He never touched me.

* * *

Instead, therefore, of feeling that the audience was an object of attention from him, he felt that he was an object of attention to the audience. This of course is the reverse of what it should be. Instead of finding his audience—like other orators—an angry master who is to be pacified, or a sturdy master who is to be cajoled,—and in any case, one whose difficult regard is to be won,—he takes it for granted that he has the command.

* * *

Let him remember that the true orator must not wrap himself in himself, but must wholly abandon himself to the sentiment he utters and to the multitude he addresses;—must become their property, to the end that they may become his.*

Your main purpose in speaking may be to sell your books, but that shouldn’t be the focus of your speech. Don’t just know your audience; get into its mind and give it what it wants. To paraphrase Emerson: if you give yourself to the audience, it will belong to you.   

This mini-series concludes next week with some more remarks from Mark Twain.


*    From First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson, pgs. 66-68. The bracketed notation and italics are from the book.


The picture at the head of this post is based on an albumen print from Southworth & Hawes, which was created around 1857. It is in the public domain because of its age.

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