Despite the fact that public speaking remains an important and relevant skill in our modern age — you never know when you’ll need to give a toast at a wedding, pitch an idea at work, or champion a proposal at a city council meeting — most of us get very little instruction these days in how to do it effectively.
Fortunately, my guest says, we can look to the great orators of the past to get the public speaking education we never received. His name is John Hale, and he’s professor of archeology as well the lecturer of The Great Courses course Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the Greatest Speeches in History. Today on the show, John shares what we can learn about the physicality of public speaking from Demontheses of Athens, the importance of empathetic body language from Patrick Henry, the effective use of humor from Will Rogers, the power of three from the apostle Paul, and the potency of brevity and well-executed organization from Abraham Lincoln.
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- Why hasn’t public speaking been much of an emphasis in our education system?
- Who was Demosthenes? What role did his speaking have on Greek history?
- Why public speaking is important to democracy
- The physical act of public speaking
- What Patrick Henry can teach us about delivery
- Why does humor often fall flat in public speaking? Why was Will Rogers’ humor effective?
- The role of body language in public speaking
- The power of three in a speech
- What made Lincoln’s Gettysburg address so memorable and powerful
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- An Introduction to Public Speaking
- The Winston Churchill Guide to Public Speaking
- How to Improve Your Speaking Voice
- The Fascinating Secrets of Your Voice
- Why You Should Learn the Lost Art of Rhetoric
- How to Be a More Compelling Person
- Classical Rhetoric 101 series
- Resurrecting the Lost Art of Oratory
- The 35 Greatest Speeches in History
- The Art of Public Speaking in book form
- Themistocles Exhortation Before Salamis
- 8 Inspirational Locker Room Speeches
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Despite the fact that public speaking remains an important relevant skill in our modern age, I mean you never know when you’ll need to give a toast at a wedding, pitch an idea at work or champion a proposal at a city council meeting, most of us get very little instruction these days in how to do it effectively. Fortunately, my guest says, we can look at the great orators of the past to get the public speaking education we never received. His name is John Hale, and he’s a professor of archeology as well as the lecturer of The Great Courses course, The Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the Greatest Speeches in History.
Today on the show, John shares what we can learn about the physicality of public speaking from Demosthenes of Athens, the importance of empathetic body language from Patrick Henry, the effective use of humor from Will Rogers, the power of three from the Apostle Paul, and the potency of brevity and well-executed organization from Abraham Lincoln. After show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/publicspeak.
John Hale, welcome to the show.
John Hale: Thank you, I’m very glad to be here with you.
Brett McKay: So you are a professor of archeology, but you’re also the lecturer of The Great Courses course on the Art of Public Speaking. Where do you trace your interest in public speaking to?
John Hale: My grandmother. She lived within walking of the house where I grew up with my seven brothers and sisters, and my father was her son. And to get to know us, her name was Lydia, and she established things called “Lydi Nights”. Every Friday was a Lydi night for one of the seven of us, when we got to escape the herd, pack a little bag of our own, walk through the woods on the path to grandmother’s house, and spend the night with her at her house, with her brother and sister, listening to her stories, working ancient jigsaw puzzles that our parents had worked when they were kids, exploring the woods, getting into old books and things like that. So it was a magic time, and she would take us down to the woods, tell us stories, and introduced me, I realize now, to the concept of an oral tradition, that although she’d read from books she mainly told the things, improvised the stories.
And she wanted us to be able to do that, so she would ask us to tell her stories. And so we began… None of us ever knew what went on on the other brother and sister’s night with her, but I imagine she did it for everyone, we were encouraged to talk, to speak to learn how to organize our thoughts, to tell her a story, maybe she knew the… It was a familiar folk tale or fairy tale and we would re-tell it. But I think we all got over, with her, any fear of self-consciousness about speaking. And that’s one of the hardest things in American life today. Lots of people are great at the word processor or writing things down, but there is this very widespread block on confident public speaking, and she took us in hand starting when we were about five, and I think it made a huge difference.
So I just think I grew up in an oral tradition, a family oriented toward telling stories, towards holding forth, towards speaking up at a town hall meeting. I have family members who went into the church and became great orators in the pulpit. So I was lucky because I think public speaking is the single most neglected valuable achievement, attainment, that we can have in a democracy. And I certainly didn’t find that any of my schooling at Green Valley grade school, Scribner Junior High, Louisville Country Day School, Yale University, Cambridge University, none of those places focused on it. And yet we were continually hearing teachers that were either good or bad, based on whether they were good or bad public speakers.
Brett McKay: And why do you think there has not been that much of an emphasis on public speaking? If you go back 200 years ago, like at Yale, you’d have to take a course on rhetoric.
John Hale: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: What happened?
John Hale: I cannot explain this. You’ve asked the $64,000 question. How does a nation that prides itself on being a participatory democracy not think it matters that every youngster learns to be a confident and effective public speaker? And yet it’s interesting to me that the word “rhetoric” in American English… It’s a little game I play with myself, what are words that have nothing but positive meanings, what are words that have nothing but negative meanings, and what are mixed words. Rhetoric is basically a nothing but negative word. “Oh, that’s just rhetoric.” In other words, empty word spitting. Just being a blowhard. It sounds like it’s a big deal, but you’re not saying anything here, cut to the chase, give us the meat of the matter.” That’s not what rhetoric is. Rhetoric, as was once said, is as noble and art as any cause that you can use to put rhetoric in the service of selling that cause, advocating that cause. Rhetoric itself is a noble thing.
And so what I did was when I was asked by the teaching company to do a course on rhetoric, I tried to pick out a dozen great speeches in history that were spoken by people who I thought were not just wonderful speakers but were at a crisis in their lives and they were great leaders, great individuals, great discoverers, great examples for any of us to follow, of somebody who is making an effective speech when it really matters.
Brett McKay: What I like about your course on public speaking is that you go back into history to look for… You call them “guest lecturers”…
John Hale: Yes, I do, I call them… I like to imagine they’re in the room with us when we’re talking about it.
Brett McKay: To teach different aspects of public speaking. And so you start off, the first guest lecturer was a fifth-century Greek statesman named Demosthenes of Athens. For those who aren’t familiar with him, who was he and what role did his public speaking have on Greek history?
John Hale: Athens and Sparta are the two great city states of ancient Greece, which still are fairly familiar in American popular culture, and they were the yin and the yang of the Greek mind and Greek culture, Athens being war-like, Spartan, Laconic, which means you never say more than you have to, and they had a pair of kings and they didn’t do much orating. The kings, who served the generals for life, would propose things, there would be a rattling of spears on shields to indicate yay or nay, and they’d be off to war.
Athens was totally different. Athens was a democracy, and they ultimately became the world’s first radical democracy when they became a naval power and all the poor citizens who owned no land, they weren’t farmers or landowners, they were citizens who had not played a role in defending the Polis. Polis is the Greek word for a city state. You got a city, you got all the surrounding farmlands and forests, that’s a little country of its own, and we got our word “politics” and “politician” and even “polite” from the Polis of the ancient Greeks. Athens was a Polis, Sparta was a Polis. Well, in Athens every citizen who had full rights had a chance to stand up in the national assembly, the assembly of the Polis, up on a high hill, it was a place called the Pnyx, the crowded place, and you could speak your piece.
It was a participatory democracy in a way ours is not. Every four years we get to go to the polls and decide who’s gonna boss us around for the next four years, and anywhere up to 49% of us will be disappointed in who it is that is doing that, but they weren’t that way. And they all cycled through government positions. Juries, they were very sensible, juries for big cases were 501 people. And so everybody, every citizen, will have been on a jury on a regular basis.
And what are we with 12 jurors? There’s always gonna be hung juries. They could never have a hung jury, ’cause there’s 501. So they thought things through in a way that I think somehow we didn’t back in the 1770s and came up with a working thing that worked for centuries, but it was all based on public participation and public speaking, standing up on that little rocky hilltop, which was kind of a sounding board, it was a good place for you to speak loud and everybody could hear you. And so that’s, I think, at the threshold of our Western tradition of a participatory life in your community, in your democracy, in your city, whatever it may be, where you have a privilege and an opportunity but also a responsibility to make your voice heard.
And that’s why Athens… It just fascinates me to this day. I’m an archeologist, I look to the past for insights and wisdom and interest, but I still think we have a lot to learn about getting our American population actively engaged in our democracy. And they did it through that open forum of public speaking.
Brett McKay: And what did Demosthenes do in that open forum of public speaking?
John Hale: Well, he was a skinny little kid, and he was never gonna be a great general, and also, let me just give you the background on his life, ’cause it’s such an interesting one. He was born into a wealthy family, his father died when he was tiny, and after his father’s death everything was left to him, but his father’s male relatives embezzled all the money, took it all away, invested it elsewhere for themselves, and he found himself when he became of age, a man, ready to launch his public life in Athens, his career as a citizen, a pauper.
And all of the older men in the family didn’t want him to have a public voice ’cause he would call them to account and demand his own money, so he’d been brought up without the kind of engagement with other people and so on. So he thought, “At last I could speak in the assembly, I don’t anybody, there’s nobody to champion me, I must be my own champion, I must speak for myself.” He had a stutter, and he’d never been taken to the gymnasium by his uncle, so he was a kind of concave-chested weak and scrawny kid, he had not worked out, he’d not become the Greek ideal of the muscular youth, the Olympic hero. So he started to do training, and he would run up hills, declaiming speeches that he’d memorized while ran up the hill, until he could run and still speak the speech without being breathless, without stumbling on the words.
He would go down by the seashore and he would find smooth pebbles that the sea had worked over, put them in his mouth and then, while the waves we’re crashing on the beach, try to declaim passages from Homer’s Odyssey or famous passages from the plays of Aeschylus or Sophocles at the top of his voice with pebbles in his mouth, to get over his stutter, to work his tongue around the pebbles till he was elocuting clearly, but also projecting his weak little concave chest, he built himself up, and he could project then over the sound of the waves. And I should say right now, as a technical point for all our friends who are listening who are interested in public speaking, yelling ain’t projecting. Projecting is finding a way to make your own head kind of a voice box that amplifies your voice as you send it out into the air.
And that’s what he did, and that’s what he had to do when he ultimately became first a lawyer and would stand in the great open public forums of the Athenian law courts, everything was open air in Athens, so that everybody could come. As I’ve said, juries are 501, and they’ve each one gotta hear you, if you’re the lawyer defending somebody. And in the first case he defended himself. He went, presented himself to the justices, and took his uncles, who had embezzled all of his fortune, to court, and convinced the jury that he was in the right, they were in the wrong. Well, he won the case. But they’d spent all the money, there was nothing to win back, so he realized, “Well I’ve got a marketable skill, I will hire myself out.” And he became a lawyer.
Brett McKay: Did he have a career outside of law? Did he become a statesman of any sort?
John Hale: He ultimately became the Head of State of Athens at the most dangerous time in the city’s history. There was a great power up to the north that we’re all familiar with now, Macedon, or Macedonia, still an important mountainous northern region of Greece, but at that time it was a kingdom. The Athenians loathed kings. They had gotten rid of their own kings centuries earlier, they had gotten into that democracy where every citizen had an equal voice and an equal vote, and their great enemies, the Persians, were always led by their great kings, and the two that really tangled with the Athenians were king Darius of Persia, who sent the Persians to invade Athens and the Athenians repelled them at the Battle of Marathon, and then Darius’s son King Xerxes of Persia, who sent a thousand Persian ships, or Persian-owned ships, to try to capture Athens by sea. And that was when they fought the Battle of Salamis.
And we still have, thanks to a Greek writer named Herodotus, some of the speeches that were given by the heroes of that time in Athens, a great man named Themistocles, who like Demosthenes was on the outside. Themistocles was the only Athenian who thought, “We can beat these Persians. We just need to not face them on land where they can overwhelm us like an avalanche, we need to get in our ships. They’re a land power, we need to make ourselves into a sea-serpent, a great power on the waves, let’s build ships. We just struck some silver in our mines, we’ll build a great force of 200 of these ships with bronze rams and we will beat them,” and they did. It was called the Battle of Salamis. It was all because of the speeches of this Themistocles, who believed in fight rather than surrender or flee.
And these were the kinds of old speeches, in this case recorded by the Herodotus narrative, that Demosthenes steeped himself in, not just law court where he would make money initially and win back his own purloined and embezzled fortune from his wretched guardians, but ultimately rise to become the head of state of his own city and try to prevent Athens’ conquest by the Macedonians, by King Philip and his son Alexander.
Brett McKay: I think the big takeaway from Demosthenes was this idea that public speaking is a physical act, and he had to get in shape physically to be an effective public speaker. And oftentimes I think we typically think of public speaking as sort of intellectual, which it is, but you can’t forget that this is also an embodied physical act, so you have to be in shape to do it.
John Hale: I couldn’t agree more. And every aspect of your body comes into play. Your eyes: You’ve got to look at your audience, and you can’t pick one person. You’ve got to feel, by the end of your speech, everybody in that hall has felt you looked at them once. And I think if you’ve got to read the speech, many places have it set up now, if you talk to them about it, where your text that you need to read will be projected and you can still be looking out into the group of people, the audience, the crowd, the folks who’ve assembled to hear you, but there is the text of your speech on a little board or tablet or screen in front of you, and you can get through it.
Some of the people listening may be able to remember how moving it was at John F. Kennedy’s sunny inauguration ceremony when Robert Frost was reading one of his last poems, that aged poet laureate of America, and the sun was so bright on his pages that he couldn’t read his own poem clearly, and he just stopped trying to and then began to recite it from memory. But the fact that it was the spoken word, that it was a drama of communication from someone who was there trying to speak to you, trying to share things of great importance to him, or to her, whoever would be speaking, that’s what I think rivets the attention and that’s what builds memories that last, in a way that a typical television broadcast just doesn’t. Public speaking is personal to everyone who’s listening to you, and you’ve got to combine that broad oratorical roots to the crowd, to everybody, with moving your eyes around, try to make everybody who’s there feel you looked at them once.
Brett McKay: Well, in a guest lecture you bring in to help people understand the importance of delivery and eye contact and how you move your body when you public speak, is Patrick Henry. How was he a master of delivery in public speaking?
John Hale: Patrick Henry, for those folks who’ve joined us, let me remind you, he is the one who helped launch the American Revolution with the famous rallying cry, “Give me liberty or give me death.” It was part of a longer phrase, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” So he was allowing for that democratic principle, “I may be in a minority, but I know what I’m gonna do, and I will die in the trenches in this cause.” Well, that was one of the things that made the revolution happen. We have to remember what a near-run thing that was, it was only about 50-50 among the English-speaking colonists of the British Colonies in America, whether they wanted to really fight mother Britain, the greatest sea power in the world and far outnumbering them. But it was those early speeches that did it, and Patrick Henry’s was one of the moments when somebody held a match to the little fuse or the canon and blew that shot right out that was heard around the world. And certainly all around America, “Give me liberty, give me death.”
So I talk about him in my course as how famous he was for his body language, shaking his fist at the heavens, and an anger at the tyranny of the British. And when he cried, “Give me liberty or give me death.” I think we would consider this overdoing it these days, although we are not trying to liberate our country from a foreign oppressor, but he was standing astride the stage, in front of his little seat there in the house of… I guess it’s the equivalent of the colony of Virginia legislature, but he’s standing there, he’s giving his speech, and as he cried out that final phrase he struck his heart with his fist, raised the other hand in the air, and then cried out, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and then collapsed back into his seat as if he’d been struck with a blow, rather than just, “Oh, thank you Mr. Chairman, I’ll sit down now.” So anything you can do with body language, and you gotta match it to the occasion, we’re not all trying to start a revolution as Patrick Henry was, but let your body also speak.
Brett McKay: So, okay, think about how you deliver, think about your body language, but another I think something you attack that you see people do when they give a speech is they try to start off their speech with some sort of joke or self-deprecating comment about how they’re terrible at public speaking. So they’re trying to use humor as a way to get in, they’re nervous and maybe they feel that if they can laugh it off, then things will kind of be a little smoother. But often those jokes fall flat in public speaking. Why does humor often fall flat in public speaking?
John Hale: Well I wanna say first of all, I think there are different approaches. And if it calms you down to tell a joke, tell the joke. If it helps you launch, and above all if the joke relates to the message of the speech, which not all opening jokes do, then don’t rule out the possibility of using one. But I think in some ways jokes are always somewhat trivializing, and I think most public speaking, it’s an occasion that matters or you wouldn’t be doing it. And what I want to convey is not humor and, “Aw shucks, we’re all in this together, we’re just plain folks,” I want to suggest respect: Respect for them, respect for the subject we’re talking about, respect for the outcome, respect for the occasion, self-respect. And I think that is done by standing up straight, looking people in the eye, being frank, being open.
If there’s gonna be humor and so on, save it till you’ve established that this is something that matters to you, you know what matters to them, it’s meaningful. One can add humor to anything, humor can be a great spark that lightens things up, actually can be a spur to thought and make people think twice. A joke can sometimes shake people out of the straight intellectual pondering on something and see a thing in a new way. But I would just use it really sparingly, and really to borrow an old term, intentionally. With intentionality. You know that’s the right joke to launch a new topic or a new aspect or a new thought, or to sum something up, a little exclamation point at the end of a section, give everybody a break, and then go on.
Brett McKay: Well, the guest lecturer you bring in to show how to effectively use humor is Oklahoma’s own Will Rogers. What can Will Rogers…
John Hale: The supreme humorist and American history, in my opinion.
Brett McKay: Why do you think his humor was effective?
John Hale: I believe it was because more than anybody else I know of in human history… Not human, American history, American history of our times, Will Rogers struck people as being, that term we sometime use, an everyman. Everybody could identify with him. He was that person we are when we’re not praying in church or standing up at a town meeting or being chewed out by the boss, whoever… He just seemed to embody a plainness, a simplicity, a straightforwardness that we all wanted to identify with.
It seemed like a basic good, to be open to all people, tolerant, welcoming of all people, that was the kind of image that Will Rogers projected. And his humor was… Never had that edge on it where he took somebody down with a joke. It was never aimed at somebody. His humor always made a kind of a feeling of bond, “We’re all smiling at this together, we’re all seeing the humor in this together.” And I think humor can be a tremendous rhetorical device, a joke that makes… Jokes, remember, you laugh because you were surprised, you didn’t see it coming. So you wanna pick an element of the situation you’re talking about, and it may be a very serious situation, obviously there are certain things you never wanna use humor about: Deaths, unless you’re telling a funny story that will make people remember the beloved person who died at the age of 90, that’s okay, but you’ve got to use this carefully.
But in a less high-tension high-stakes moment humor can help draw the audience together. There’s nothing like a laugh going around the whole crowd that makes everybody feel, A, relaxed but, B, together, united. They’ve laughed at the same thing, that’s a real powerful moment for any group. I’ve even seen a moments at memorial services were the most memorable thing was an enormous roar of laughter from the whole group at jointly remembering a remarkably humorous moment in the life of the deceased person that that person was proud of and liked to brag about or liked to recite, to remind people of. So humor may have a place in almost any speech, but it should almost be like a spice, a dash, a little element that you add to as a thing to emphasize, spark, refocus attention, or release tension itself.
Brett McKay: So I’m seeing a theme here, with the Patrick Henry delivery and the Will Rogers humor, it’s like these things are used to create a connection between you and the audience.
John Hale: That’s what public speaking is all about. That’s why it differs from sitting down at your lonely word processor, typewriter, pad of paper with your pen in hand, and just writing in the silence words that you will know will be read ultimately by others. In that case you’ve just got to craft the words that carry your tone, your message, your sort of focus and… Where you all want this to go, you’re steering the thoughts and attitudes of the reader purely through words. Public speaking allows you to do it much more person-to-person. And we all know body language can overrule anything you say. I once read a really interesting book on body language, I was still a teenager, and it told me things that I’ve never gotten over.
One was that people who touch their face while speaking at a moment of tension or something… Obviously if you’ve got a little itch or something to brush off you’re gonna touch your face, but touching your face is a defensive thing. You’re bringing the hand up, and it means whatever they just said, it’s something that’s a slightly problematic statement for that person who’s saying it. To touch your eye can sometimes mean, “I can’t really see this myself, but I sure hope you can.” To pull your ear is, “I hope you’re hearing this, because there’s a problem here.” Any touching of the face is a sign of insecurity, of a double meaning, of a sense that the speaker is not 100% with or behind or convinced by the statement they’re making themselves. So always keep your hands away from your face, away from your ears, your face, mouth, nose, neck, anything. You can use them, raise a hand, fist out, make a point, whatever, with the index finger, but do not touch your face.
Brett McKay: Now, when it comes to the more macro question of how to organize your speech, you’re a big believer in organizing things into threes. Why is there power in talking about things and organizing things in groups of threes, and who is an example of an orator who employed this tactic?
John Hale: I believe the human mind is satisfied by three. One of anything, one example, one statement, one fact, is an isolation, it doesn’t prove anything, it’s just, “Yeah, there’s that. But what about everything else?” Two, we are taught to see the opposition. Two is always a diad, a yes/no, a yin/yang, a black/white, male/female, human versus the rest of the world. That’s two. Feuds are made between two. Three is a completion. And so if you think of your own presentation, you want a beginning, you want a middle, which is the substance of the speech, and you want an end. Those three parts, the tri-part element. I use Paul, the Apostle Paul, who’s probably more responsible than any other single person for making Christianity the…
Obviously after Jesus, for taking up the words of Jesus, who he never knew, and as a man named Saul who was not Christian at all, a persecutor of early Christians, had a vision on the road to Damascus, according to the tradition, and then became, I think, because of his eloquence and because of his great gift at turning thoughts and beliefs into memorable words, that he’s one of the builders of the whole success of… That Jesus’s message became something that millions of people through history have turned to, adopted, followed, or argued against and fought. Paul was a genius at that.
And I think the three that I always remember is, “Now there abide these three: Faith, hope, charity, or love. But the greatest of these is charity.” That word “charity” that I also say could be love, it’s a Greek word we can’t say in one English word, “agape”, if you spell it out in English, “agape”, well that is what it means in Greek, open like an agape mouth or an open window, but it means open, tolerant, welcoming. So that’s what he’s trying to say. And he is wanting you to see that your faith and your hope, that’s in you. But Jesus felt, he felt this was something that made Jesus a teacher he wanted to follow the teachings of. Jesus wanted an outward thing where you are sharing that, you are opening yourself up to others, you are connecting with others, in the most kind of humble but open and willing to learn and willing to share kind of way.
So, I’m not getting into the theological or the life lessons that Paul is trying to say, I’m just saying faith, hope, agape. Faith, hope, charity. Faith, hope, love. And then the greatest of these is the third. But his whole sermon, and it probably is a sermon, someone probably wrote it down while Paul was speaking, he was a proselytizer, he went around and talked to lots of different early Christian congregations around the Mediterranean world, and this I’m sure was a frequently used speech, ’cause agape is Jesus’s… That’s the word he used, that it gets translated as “love” or “charity”. So Paul, this is his signature speech, I imagine faith, hope, charity was something he was known for, but everything think in threes. A beginning, middle, end of a story. A beginning, middle, end of a sentence. Everything you do, examples always in threes. And your audience will get the picture, be with you, feel you have made a case that’s easy to follow and carries conviction.
Brett McKay: Okay, so another guest lecturer you bring, and I wanna end with this, is Abraham Lincoln. And he gave one of the most famous speeches in world history, it’s always listed up there as some of the greatest speeches, and that’s the Gettysburg Address.
John Hale: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: But what a lot of people forget, or don’t know about the Gettysburg are, is that there was another renowned speaker, he was like world-famous, famous in America, that gave a speech that spoke right before Lincoln, but it lasted hours. But we don’t remember that guy, I don’t even know the guy’s name, but we do remember Lincoln speech, the Gettysburg Address, and it was just like a… A 10-year-old can memorize it, it’s that short. Why don’t we remember the really famous speaker guy but we remember Lincoln’s short speech?
John Hale: His name was Horton, and he was the main speaker, he was a person who was respected by all, and he had been asked to do the memorial tribute, the speech that would be a tribute to all of those who fell at Gettysburg. And Lincoln was insistent that it be a non-political, non “ra ra Union” speech, ’cause Gettysburg was, as far as I can remember, that may be the battle that led to the most American deaths of any single battle. At any rate, there they are on the field at Gettysburg, and because it’s near where some of my family live, Gettysburg, Virginia. From an early age I was taken to the battlefield and we would just walk that field, and we would go to the place where Lincoln and the others gathered for those addresses at the end. And I was fascinated to read, ’cause I sure didn’t know when I was a kid, the Gettysburg Address was not the big deal. He was a little after-piece, and so the big two-hour oration went on. In those pre-media days our ancestors had a stronger stomach than we do for direct public speaking, listening to a person with attention for a couple of hours.
We don’t have any trouble watching a movie for two hours, they brought that same kind of attention to a public speaker, even a preacher or a inspired prophetess or whoever, they were willing to listen at great length. So, Lincoln came without knowing what he was gonna say and, this is the tradition, and that he scribbled notes as on what he was gonna say while listening to the main speech. And that when he was over, he got up and read the immortal words of the Gettysburg Address. A few minutes. I don’t know that anyone has ever recorded the crowd’s response, it may have been so somber that the effect he had was just silence and then everyone dispersing from this field of sorrow. But Horton, the main speaker, walked over to Lincoln and was heard to say, “Mr. President, I wish I could feel I said as much in two hours as you said in two minutes.” And hats off to the speaker for his insight, his awareness, his humbleness and his admiration for Lincoln, but for putting his finger on something: You can encapsulate something big in a small space if you give it the right form. Everything needs a beginning, a middle and an end.
Read through the Gettysburg Address for yourself. You see how Lincoln’s evocation of the situation, “What brings us all together on this field of battle… ” The middle part about the stress, “We find ourselves here on this field of the battle in the midst of a great civil war.” And then that final ending which is dedicating ourselves to the cause for which they died, taking them as examples to follow, making them live not just in a sort of, “Oh, I remember” way, but as examples as these sort of figures written in fire in our imaginations, of, “We can be that too. We can do that too.” And if we do give that last full measure of devotion as they did, any cause can prevail. So it’s a mechanical thing I’m talking about with Lincoln, but his words had the power because of this structure, that tripartite three-part structure that he used, a powerful call to attention and equally powerful but now somewhat more cerebral thought-provoking middle, and then a finally power in the close, in a summing up, turning back to the subject, the fallen, all of these soldiers who gave their lives, and focus then on the subject, not on the speaker. Beginning, middle, end.
And it’s not a long speech. Two minutes, but I think his audience felt, and certainly Horton who gave the main speech felt, he had created the sense of something vast in those two minutes because they’d been on a journey with him through those three parts of opening the door, taking the view, and then reflecting on the message. That’s what I would recommend in anything you’re doing, even if it’s just a financial report, have a beginning, have the middle that’s the substance, and draw it to a conclusion that reminds your listeners of what mattered.
Brett McKay: And also keep in mind, more isn’t often better. In fact, less is often better.
John Hale: Well, and that is what the honored main speaker that day was pointing out to Lincoln, “I wish I could say as much.” He felt he’d said less. He felt that Lincoln, by boiling down to the heart of the matter, had left the people feeling the greater message in the way that the main speaker, who had to talk for two hours, everybody expected it, I mean he had the harder row to hoe, but he was such an insightful person. I think that’s a beautiful thing that he said to Lincoln, that the president had said more, that the brief could be more powerful and it was partly because of its brevity, it’s memorability.
Brett McKay: Well, John, this has been a great conversation. We’ve talked about some of the guest lecturers you bring on in your lecture on the art public speaking. Where can people go and learn more about your course, the Art of Public Speaking?
John Hale: Well, it’s available to you from The Great Courses company, they have a mail order and online presence, I think now you can download them all, which was a technology that didn’t exist all those decades ago when I would truck out to Chantilly, Virginia, for session after session from my home base in New Albany, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky, and spent some very happy times working with them. I’m a guy who likes team efforts, and I’ll say one other thing about public speaking, think of it always as a team effort, don’t be isolated and lonely about it, try things out on other people. Learn from other people and make the audience feel like you’re all in this together. It’s not you haranguing or lecturing them or teaching them, that it’s a conversation, even if they don’t ever get a Q&A at the end, even if they never raise their hand, try to make it a conversation and you will relax yourself, you will find the right way to put across your points, and they will not only enjoy it, they will remember it.
Brett McKay: Well, John Hale, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
John Hale: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was John Hale. He is the lecturer of The Great Courses course, the Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the Greatest Speeches in History. Check that out at the Great Courses, also check out our show notes aom.is/publicspeak, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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