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Contingencies of Public Meetings

It is of no mean importance to an orator or speaker, who is invited to address a meeting, to make himself acquainted how that meeting is likely to be conducted, and who are announced, or are likely, to address it. If there are many speakers, he who speaks first, or second, or at any time, must be brief, in courtesy to others. If the speakers are not brief, the orator who has decided upon, and arranged the order of his arguments, will find that he has to drop out, one by one, points he deems important. It is the duty of a chairman to take care that the meeting—unless one of unusual importance in the eyes of the auditors—should not exceed two or two and a half hours. It is the duty of the chairman to see the list of speakers invited to address the meeting, and arrange with the conveners of the meeting what time should be given to each, and notify to each that when that time is nearly up he will make known the same to him. Not one chairman in ten ever does this, nor reflects that, as the audience is responsible to him for maintaining order in the meeting, he is responsible to the audience for keeping time on the platform. For want of this thought half an hour of time is commonly wasted, which to a meeting of five hundred persons means a loss of twenty-five days of ten hours each. In fact, meetings are frequently prolonged till eleven o'clock, which might have been concluded at ten, which to an audience of a thousand persons implies a loss of fifty working days of ten hours. This needless extension of the duration of the meeting means the adulteration of the proceedings, by prolixity, decrease of animation, and weariness to hearers, who become less inclined to attend meetings which no one knows when they will end. The speaker who is called upon late should understand these contingencies, and take them into account by speaking with what directness and energy he can. I have heard Mr. Bright kindle a fire of enthusiasm at a Birmingham meeting which was breaking up late and listlessly. But this is only possible to orators of the type of those who Mark Antony said once stirred the stones of Rome. Under such circumstances the ordinary speaker would be ineffectual; and late speakers at exhausted meetings will do well to say little or nothing—for a speech which would be successful when the meeting was fresh or unwearied, will command no attention later.

Sometimes a special paper is read at a meeting, under an announcement that no paper is to exceed twenty minutes in length. It will probably extend to forty or fifty minutes; and those who gave the pledge that twenty minutes should be its limit will actually print the extended paper and deliver it to the appointed reader, although they see that no one could gabble through it audibly in the prescribed period. Thus the succeeding commenters on the paper confront an assembly of wearied and baffled listeners, who have failed to retain its excess of matter in their minds. It is well that succeeding speakers understand this, lest they interpret the listlessness of the hearers as indifference to them. There is another liability from which a speaker whose voice is not loud must protect himself, by profiting from what he may know of the vocal capacity of others likely to precede him. If he is allotted to follow a Boanerges (a son of thunder) of the platform, the contrast will be against him—say what he will. But if he speaks before them he will be heard on his merits.

Frequently, a public meeting is called to consider and discuss some question of importance. Then the trouble is cast upon the chairman of discerning what the main point or points are which he should state to the meeting—since it is his duty to see that speakers keep to them. Anyone intending to speak should get clear ideas on the subject himself, since he will speak most effectively who knows what the question is and keeps to it. The business of those who speak at conference or discussion is to consider alone the question stated by the chairman or other responsible person—the reader of a paper or the opener of the question—and not the speeches of others, except so far as they relate to the main point at issue. A speaker who understands these things can attain ascendency in the meeting, for all are ready to applaud anyone who sees clearly, clears up confusion, and leads distracted public attention back to the point.

When a speech or lecture is thrown open to criticism, each critic commonly expects to occupy the same time as the speaker, which often prevents more than one being heard in reply. In co-operative meetings this is prudently prevented by limiting the time of each speaker. It is not the work of any one speaker, but the work of many, to appraise and comment upon a whole lecture or paper, and each critic should select a leading point, and ten minutes would afford time for an effective objection if one could be raised. A speaker, therefore, who has talent by which he can advance a cause, or add to the public information, should seek, beforehand, conditions which give him a fair opportunity consistent with the fair chances of others.

At public meetings, where opposing parties often struggle to be heard, confusion, delay and ill-feeling might be obviated by each party pre-appointing a representative of ability, in whom confidence could be reposed, to speak on their behalf, and by those calling the meeting being made acquainted with and consenting to the arrangement—the views of half a dozen parties could be advocated, where the views of one are often heard but inadequately and impatiently now.

Sometimes a speaker is confused and disconcerted at a public meeting by hearing loud calls for another person to speak, and thinks—as I have known a reverend orator dothe audience are impatient with him and want to hear someone else. All the while it was the plot of an ambitious publicist, who had personal admirers whom he besought to attend meetings and call for him, giving the impression that he was in public demand. There is the story of the auditor, at an American meeting, who kept calling, 'Mr. Corkles; let Mr. Corkles speak.' At length the Chairman said, 'Can't you be quiet? Mr. Corkles is now speaking.' 'That Mr. Corkles?' said the astonished interrupter, 'why, that is the man who gave me a half-dollar to holler out his name.'

A case occurred at a northern meeting some time ago, where the hall was so crowded that those wedged far in wished they were outside. One man who tried in vain to make his way to the door, and for whom no one would make an opening, began to call out,' What did Mr. Gladstone say? What did Mr. Gladstone say?' until the speaker on the platform could not be heard and the audience were incensed. Whereupon cries arose, 'Turn him out,' and the man so anxious to hear 'what Mr. Gladstone said,' was turned out. When one who had assisted in his ejection said to him, ' What was it Mr. Gladstone said?' 'I have no idea,' was the answer. 'Then why did you call out?' The reply was, 'Because I wanted to get out; when by my becoming an interrupter everybody made way for me.' If the arts and expedients of public meetings are understood by a speaker, he will not be needlessly perturbed by interruptions. Many persons cry out whose object is not at once apparent, and whose intentions are not at all implied in what they say.

Public meetings in the country, and in the town also, are conducted on the crudest principles. If many men were disposed to take part in the meeting, it would be impossible that any business could be transacted under several days. The assumption that every man has a right to be heard could not be acted upon if half who usually attend public meetings were to enforce that 'right.' In Saxon days, when a public meeting consisted of a small number of persons under a tree, every one having the right to speak caused no inconvenience. It is strange that this right should remain in force after 1ooo years, when public meetings consist of 30,000 persons, as was the case at Bingley Hall, Birmingham, when Mr. Gladstone spoke there. Had each person present claimed the right to be heard, and insisted on it, the meeting had lasted six months.

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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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