In Defense of Declamations

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

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