Editor's Note: This blog post was written and submitted by Blake Faulkner at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Two minutes into the funeral and I’m already thinking about lunch. I’m not even hungry. I strain to listen attentively, but it proves difficult. The speaker isn’t saying anything bad or offensive. He hasn’t made a tasteless joke. He isn’t forgetting his points or breaking down crying. He even tells a story about the deceased that is moderately touching, if one manages to listen to its entirety. Nothing about his content is wrong, so why am I checking out? I’ve been teaching and competing in public speaking for 11 years, and I still have the same reaction most audiences do to bad delivery: I zone out. His voice is monotone, his energy low, and his tone screams through all of his respectable words, “I don’t really want to be here and I’m just trying to get this over with.”
He never says that of course, but everything non-verbal reads exactly that way. That’s delivery, everything you say without words. Delivery should be placed back at the center of public speaking. Rather than a supplement added on to arguments, evidence, and research, delivery should serve as a focal point from beginning to end in any speech whatsoever.
Rhetoric was for many centuries the classical art of speaking, persuasion, and sublime display. Linked with poetry and politics, the ability to think, speak, and write with rhetorical skill had no rival as the most important practical discipline for public life. I’m not convinced public speaking is any less important today, but we’re certainly worse at it. Perhaps one reason we’re worse is because we don’t have as many good and highly publicized examples, and another reason I think is because we don’t mimic good examples like rhetoricians of old. It was common practice for ancient Greeks and Romans to learn public speaking by imitating the finest examples available to them.
That’s a declamation: the ancient rhetorical practice of delivering someone else’s excellent speech. Many teachers can attest to the importance of reading good books for the development of reading and writing skills, yet somehow much of public speaking instruction amounts to merely providing handbooks and abstract rules of thumb. It’s much like throwing students into a creative writing course without first teaching them to make a basic argument. Without simple models and starting points they will simply flounder, and often have nothing to say.
There is nothing wrong with general guidelines, and God-knows many people experienced and inexperienced need them, particularly in early public speaking settings. All skills require general rules strictly followed initially and then loosened according to levels of expertise and particular constraining circumstances. When we first learn to type or drive or cook, there are monotonous skills we have to repeat: typing the same letter, parallel parking over and over, or crisping bacon without burning it. After a while, we no longer have to think about these skills and we can completely integrate them into more complicated abilities. Likewise, almost all public speaking requires examples and models to mimic precisely, and then later one can borrow and depart from those models as their skills grow. Therefore, declamations don’t just provide concrete instances for our abstract rules and feature quality arguments, diction, tropes and figures. More importantly, declamations allow public speaking to begin like any other skill: first with imitation and building up gradually to creativity. Together, these benefits from declamations give public speakers resources and goals to live up to, rather than being lost in a sea of hypotheticals.
There is another disadvantage current public speakers face: we have separated speaking from reading and writing. Some English departments still testify to the former joining of speaking and writing in their titles, “Rhetoric and Great Books” or the like. These enterprises are pedagogically linked, but departmentally separated in academia. Historically, it was much more common to find great speakers around the corner and much less common to find great writers. Writers were often merely secretaries in charge of notation rather than composing the work itself. Today we have the reverse problem as a primarily written text-based culture, rather than an oral culture. If you want not only good arguments but also quality and moving performance in one speech, you’re more likely to find it in a movie or a comedy club than a business presentation, political rally, legislative session, or public speaking classroom, and you will mostly find people dryly reading their manuscripts. We have often relegated vocal eloquence to “private” life, and often rendered our vocational “public” life artless and soulless. Our entertainment is far more compelling than our public square.
I wouldn’t say declamations are somehow a cure for all of these problems, but they are a step in the right direction for everyone from public speaking classes to business training sessions or any form of professional development. Practically speaking, I begin by providing a pool of quality speeches, such as the website https://www.americanrhetoric.com/. This website has the virtue of providing a little context for the speeches, and audio when available as well, but any decent speech compendium will do. The curation allows initiates to imitate good writing and speaking simultaneously, rather than imbibing too many bad habits early on in the course.
Many are of course fearful of the very prospect of public speaking, and reciting someone else’s speech for practice is a good way to begin to overcome that fear. Students typically find it relieving to focus only on delivery for a season. If their first assignment is a standard persuasive speech and I point out their delivery skills need work, and I almost always do, they frequently ignore the advice and worry far more about their arguments, evidence, structure, and the like. That is why declamations are generally the first assignment in my course. If they are forced to focus on their delivery first, I’ve noticed their vocal variety, pronunciation, rhythm, volume, and body language are all improved throughout the other speeches as well, rather than being neglected at the expense of content concerns. Further still, students tend to subconsciously absorb some of the stylistic flair of the speeches they declaim, and because they are performing quality speeches this then improves their writing choices.
Quality arguments, evidence, and research in my experience are less difficult to motivate students to strive for because their importance is more self-evident. The call for emphasizing delivery by no means implies neglecting content. I also have the privilege of teaching argumentation courses, and like most public speaking instructors I integrate basic logic into the course as well. Nonetheless, students usually know they have to “have something to say” but they usually don’t think much about how they’re going to say it. From an audience’s point of view, however, the how and the what are not experientially different, and an absence in either will allow the audience to dismiss the speaker. Beginning with the how enables the what to naturally sprout, and declamations then provide the perfect genesis for the art of rhetoric.
Blake Faulkner is a Ph.d. candidate in Communication at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When he isn't teaching public speaking, argumentation, and rhetorical theory courses he's reading classic fiction and playing video games.