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Conditions of Effectiveness

Besides the effectiveness which relates to manner of delivery, there is the effectiveness which depends upon the mind. Effectiveness is the aim of oratory. So far as it can be compassed—it can' be compassed more or less by calculation in statement. There may be effectiveness without calculation, and effects unpremeditated are sometimes marvelous. But a wise speaker does not depend on chance—his strength is to foreknow. Manifest sincerity in speech may be depended upon to create a good impression on an audience. Earnestness is a quality which on the platform might degenerate into emotionalism, which, lacking self-possession, would be fatal to public effect. Sincerity is a manly, self-contained sentiment, less pretentious than earnestness. Nevertheless, earnestness, when good sense controls it, is a noble quality. Yet not even sincerity is everything. It does not imply the truth of what is said. That still requires to be proved. Some think sincerity is errorless. Once everybody, save a few philosophers, believed it to be a sign of truth. Robespierre was sincere; he was a man who made sincerity terrible. Some of his speeches, not all, read like a murder. There was a guillotine in them. His sentences dripped with blood. No genius, no talent, no sincerity is to be trusted or praised—unless it conduces, and is intended to conduce, to the welfare of others.

Nevertheless, with all its limitations, sincerity and capacity annihilate personal disadvantages. I knew a rotund orator, who appeared on the platform as Charles James Fox must have appeared in Pitt's days—like a sugar hogshead on two props, yet upon whom the audience looked with admiration while he spoke. Louis Blanc was diminutive in stature, but he was so entirely a man, and his speaking was so sonorous, pregnant and animated, that his small stature seemed an advantage to him. Robert Hall was a preacher who had ideas, as well as precisiori and energy of style, yet the spiritual and intrinsic charm of his speech was its earnestness. Foster said of Hall, 'Truth (to him) was a universal element, and to enforce its claims was his constant aim. Whether he attempted to engage the reason, the affections, or the fancy, all was subsidiary to this end. He was always in earnest,' as to the necessity of discerning truth, explaining it, and vindicating it.

Effectiveness lies also in proportion. Not in the beauty of a pillar, or the finish of a frieze, but in the commandingness which the whole building has over the spectator—not in the brilliance of a passage, but in the coherence of the whole lies the effectiveness of a speech or a book.
One conspicuous element of force is a defined purpose. Better say nothing than not to the purpose. No part should attract the main attention entirely to itself. The chief merit of any part is its subserviency to the whole design. When parts are praised, a speaker is said to have brilliance; when the whole impresses, he is said to have power. In a speech, as in a drawing on a reduced scale, all the proportions have to be there. If a subject is too extensive for an ordinary speech, present a distinct portion which shows the quality of the whole. Hierocles carried a brick in his pocket as a- specimen of the house he wanted to sell. It gave no idea of its situation, or convenience, but it proved his confidence in the quality of its material. Lucidity of arrangement is intent made evident to an assembly, and is no mean element of effectiveness. As reasoning proceeds from axioms which cannot be lost sight of without confusion—so an argumentative speech has a foregone object which must be disclosed to the hearers, or they will be unable to follow the speaker intelligently. The Encyclopadia Metropolitana has explained clearly the advantages of this course in the following terms:—

'In purely argumentative statement, or in the argumentative division of mixed statements, and especially in argumentative speeches, it is essential that the issue to be proved should be distinctly announced in the beginning, in order that the tenor and drift that way of everything that is said may be the better apprehended; and it is also useful, when the chain of argument is long, to give a forecast of the principle bearings and junctures, whereby the attention will be more easily secured and pertinently directed throughout the more closely consecutive detail, and each proposition of the series will be clenched in the memory by its foreknown relevancy to what is to follow.'

These are well-known rules, which it were superfluous to cite, except for the instruction of the young. But examples may be occasionally observed of juvenile orators who will conceal the end they aim at until they have led their hearers through the long chain of antecedents, in order that they may produce surprise by forcing a sudden acknowledgment of what had not been foreseen. The disadvantage of this method is that the hearer is apt to resent being trapped into assent. It puzzles and provokes the hearer during its statement, confounds him in the conclusion, and gives an overcharged impression of the orator's ingenuity on the part of those who may have attended to him sufficiently to have been convinced. It is a method by which the business of the argument is sacrificed to ostentation in the conduct of it, and the ease and satisfaction of the auditors sacrificed to the vanity of the arguer. The novelist or dramatist will often conceal the secret of his plot to allure the reader to the end, and take him by surprise then, if he can. In that case the story has to be entertaining up to that point, or the reader will not hold on till he reaches it. Unless a speaker is sure of enchanting his audience as he goes along, hearers will not wait for the point of his argument, which has been concealed from them. Besides, there is this difference between a novel and an argument. The novel is intended to amuse, the argument to convince, and when a link is lost, by ignorance of its relevance, the chain of proof is disconnected.

Yet though the aim of an argument must be divulged, the drift of an illustration, if brief, may be kept back. In one of the Anti-Corn-Law orations of W. J. Fox in Covent Garden Theatre, there occurred a striking example of this. He commenced by stating the case of certain poachers, related in the newspapers of that day, who had been sentenced at Ashby - de - la - Zouch to considerable terms of imprisonment. When to this punishment was added the loss and privation to which the families of the prisoners were subjected, the penalty was serious. No one foresaw the relevance of the story, but which the orator did not long withhold. He demanded to know 'if this shall be done to the poor man who steals the rich man's bird, what shall be done to the rich man who steals the poor man's bread?' I know of no first words of any speech which produced so great an effect. The argument was as a match applied to a funeral pyre where the fallacies of protection were burned before the eyes of the meeting.

An appeal to experience is a force in due place. 'The argument,' says Emerson, 'which has not the power to reach my own practice, I may well doubt will fail to reach yours. I have heard an experienced counsellor say, that he never feared the effect upon a jury of a lawyer who does not believe in his heart that his client ought to have a verdict.' Samuel Bailey, in his Review of Berkeley's 'Theory of Vision,' says:—

'Many years ago, I held what may be styled a derivative opinion in favor of Berkeley's Theory of Vision, but having in the course of a philosophical discussion had occasion to explain it, I found, on attempting to state in my own language the grounds on which it rested, that they no longer appeared to me to be so clear and conclusive as I had fancied them to be. I determined to make it the subject of a patient and dispassionate examination. The result has been a clear conviction in my own mind of its erroneousness, and a desire to state to the philosophical world the grounds on which that conviction has been formed.'

This is an interesting instance of the truth of the observation that that statement only is fit to be made public which you have come at in attempting to satisfy your own understanding.

An editor of Shelley's posthumous poems apologizes for the publication of some fragments in a very incomplete state, by remarking, 'how much more than every other poet of the present day, every line and word he wrote is instinct with beauty.' Let no man sit down to write with the purpose of making every line and word beautiful and peculiar. Sir Henry Taylor thought' the only effect of such an endeavor will be to corrupt the judgment and confound the understanding.'

Augustine Birrell, in a criticism wise in a new way, like many other criticisms of his, remarks that 'Emerson writes like an electrical cat, emitting sparks and shocks in every sentence. The lights irradiate the forest, but disclose no path.' The same critic explains what many have felt.

'You never know what Emerson will be at. His sentences .fall over you in glittering cascades, beautiful and bright, and for the moment refreshing. But after a very brief while the mind, having nothing to do on its own account but to remain wide open and see what Emerson will send it, grows first restive and then torpid. Admiration gives way to astonishment, astonishment to bewilderment, and bewilderment to stupefaction.'

As a rule, men are not much in danger of being too brilliant. Happily for orators, occasional phrases of power are sufficient for effect and reputation. Brightness and force are attainable by him who, knowing what he wishes to say, knows why it should be said. Telling the audience the reason which has convinced the speaker is that explanation which produces impression. It fulfils Mr. J. R. Green's rate—' it takes the public into the speaker's confidence, who are addressed as though they knew as much as the speaker himself.' An orator will be all the more explanatory, interesting and engaging, if he assumes in his own mind that his hearers know nothing upon the subject. A painting all white or all black allures no eye. It is light and shade that make the picture. A fixed beacon light is not seen at sea as far, nor as well, as a revolving light.

To speak, study simplicity; abjure affectation and be natural. The natural voice is heard the farthest, and the natural effects the soonest. 'The costly charm of the ancient tragedy is that the persons speak simply, speak as persons who have great good sense without knowing it.' Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing. Sincerity and simplicity carry all before them. On Thiers's first appearance in the French Chamber he experienced an almost universally unfavorable reception. He was diminutive, with an expression of countenancethough intellectual, reflective and sarcastic—far from possessing beauty. The face itself, small in form, was encumbered with a pair of spectacles so large that, when peering over the marble edge of the long narrow tribune whence all speakers address the Chamber, he was described as appearing suspended to the two orbs of crystal. With such an exterior M. Thiers, full of the impassioned eloquence of his favorite revolutionary orators, sought to impart those thrilling emotions recorded of Mirabeau. The attempt provoiced derision, but only for a time. In his new sphere, as in the others he had passed through, he soon outshone competition. Subsiding into the oratory natural to him—simple, vigorous and rapid, he proved himself one of the most formidable of Parliamentary champions.

Have a clear meaning and never obscure it. A wit may leave his words open to two interpretations if he intends to amuse and not to deceive. Dryden, a great poet, and Otway a poet also, but of lesser magnitude, lived in the same street in houses facing each other. One morning Otway wrote in chalk on Dryden's door the line:—

Here lives Dryden, a poet and a wit.

Dryden, on coming out, saw it, and wrote underneath it:—

Written by Otway opposite.

It has never been settled to this day whether Dryden meant merely to say that the line of praise his neighbors would see written on his own door about him, was not written by himself—but written by a person living opposite; or that Otway was the opposite of 'a poet and a wit.'

But in matters of moment, which will affect themselves and others, men like to know, and have a right to demand, with General Ludlow, that a speaker's words shall not only be such as can be understood, but such as cannot possibly be misunderstood.

For effectiveness in speech or writing, keep clear of philosophical fogginess and common-place sentiment. Avoid as far as possible abstract terms, abstract questions, and abstract ideas. Keep to palpable things, and such as pass before the auditors in daily life. It is very well to entertain Utopian ideas—it implies an outside mind; but it is not convincing to act altogether on Utopian principles till you are in Utopia.

Beware of the transition epoch in argument, so common and so false, by which so many alarm the public at what they call the decay of faith, which is being superseded by the evolution of higher truth. Transition is no new thing; it has been going on ever since time began. Transition is the step of ceaseless progress. Its determined and tireless tread is heard in every epoch. Transition is the changebringer of time. The hills, the ocean, the climate, society, men and creeds are changing hourly and always. It is an open question whether a particular change is good or bad. It is reasonable to reason about it. But to talk of the present time as one of transition, which the speaker has found out, is no novelty of discovery. It is older than the mountains. Transition is eternal.

Men so well-informed, and so self-conscious of infallibility as Carlyle was, could say in the days passing over him, 'Few men have seen more impressive days of endless calamity, disruption, dislocation, confusion worse confounded. If they are not days of endless hope too, then they are days of utter despair.' Public men, priests and politicians before the days of Noah, and ever since, have said the same thing. It is the common jargon of Parliament. I have seen the sun of England set for ever annually for sixty years, according to the predictions of our political Cassandras. It weakens public respect for a man's judgment to hear him talk thus. Foolishness destroys effectiveness.

No more should be said at any time than can be said well. Brevity is the instinct of art. If anything is prolonged it must be varied and perfect in every part. It is a mistake to try to say everything which can be said upon a subject. Confine yourself to so much as will make a distinct impression. Enough is as good as a feast and better, and too much is worse than a fast.

Against multitudes of words the poets have given many warnings. One who knew exclaims:—
Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath, is rarely found.
There are those who, like Talleyrand, regard words as given to us to conceal our meaning. But where the intention is to make things clear, we must give heed to Moore's suggestion—
The wise men of Egypt were secret as dummies,
And e'en when they most condescended to teach,
They packed up their meaning, as they did their mummies,
In so many wrappers, 'twas out of one's reach.

Co-operators ought to be good speakers; their study being economy, and economy in words is the source of effectiveness in speech. Economy is honorable in war. Wellington was a greater general than Napoleon, inasmuch as he compassed great effects with a smaller expenditure of men; as he is the greatest speaker who accomplishes conviction with the smallest number of words.

We can do without any article of luxury we never had, but when once obtained, it is not in human nature to surrender it voluntarily. Of twelve thousand clocks left on trial by Sam Slick, only ten were returned. 'We trust to soft sawder,' said Sam, 'to get them into the house, and to human nature that they never come out of it.' Yet how many persons expect to produce effects upon assemblies of men who never bestow half the time upon the study of their natures as was given by our American clock-seller.

The young speaker will do well to notice that morality is better understood, at least in theory, than in former days, and that the public like sincerity on the part of a speaker. A life which shall illustrate what the orator seeks to enforce will add materially to his influence. Some will ask—May not a recommendation be a good one though the giver of it be bad? Yes; but is it not an advantage when both are worthy? The public may accept good advice from men who will not take it themselves. But is it not the object of a wise rhetoric to increase the number of men who act themselves on the advice they give? If the public should be composed of men who hear only and never practice, who does not see that we may give over all exhortations of amendment? Mankind reason that that which is good for the public is good for individuals, since individuals make up the public. And when it is seen that a man does not follow his own advice, it is concluded that either he is a simpleton, and consequently is not to be heeded, or that he is secretly conscious of some inapplicability in his own recommendations, and therefore to be suspected.

The moral existence of men is made up of a few trains of thought, which, from the cradle to the grave, are excited and re-excited again and again. These leading ideas rule despotically over conduct, and, whoever awakens these, influence those whom he addresses. It is in these leading ideas that we see the source of character. These features the rhetorician studies. When Napoleon in Egypt was threatened by his disaffected generals, he vanquished them by an appeal to three traits in their character—their pride, their honor and their bravery. Walking among them, he exclaimed: 'You are too many to assassinate me, and too few to intimidate me.' The fury of the men was subdued to admiration, and they turned away, exclaiming, 'Damn him, how brave he is.' It is said the heart has no avenue so open as that of flattery, which, like some enchantment, lays its guards asleep. But flattery which succeeds with the intelligent requires art. If honest, it is excellent. A famous politician, at a Royal Academy dinner, listening to insincere praise which others called 'clever,' he answered, 'I call it hellish.'

Youth should lay the foundation of eloquence in character and honesty. Let him speak for the right; let him not borrow the language of idle gentlemen or self-complacent scholars, much less that of sensualists, absorbed in greed of purse and palate; let him speak for the' absent, defend the friendless, the poor, the slave, the prisoner and the lost. Let him look upon opposition as opportunity; he is one who cannot be defeated or put down. Let him feel that it is not the people who are in fault for not being convinced, but the speaker who cannot convince them.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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