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Platform Reading

No one of taste would prefer a sermon or speech, poor in quality and incoherent in texture, extemporarily delivered to a discourse or oration, compact in expression and strong in sense—read well. It is bad reading which brings reading into comparative contempt or dislike. Reading, like any other form of oratory, has its conditions, which are seldom thought of.

Sometimes a speech or an address will be read from a quarto book, written in a small hand, over which the reader stumbles. The hearer counts the turning over of the monotonously-spoken pages, to calculate when the end of his misery will come, when, to his utter dismay, he perceives that the pages are written at the back, and when the end was thought to be in sight, the dreadful lecturer, or speaker, begins to turn the leaves over and read the backs, when the period of the hearer's release is indefinitely postponed.

I have seen a preacher read a sermon in small, badly written, interlined pages, which no one who once took his eyes off the place he had come to, could, without delay, find it again. I have seen a prize paper read from a small printed pamphlet which did not permit the reader once to look at his audience, without missing a sentence or two, and so rapidly and insipidly was it spoken, that an audience in a penitentiary would not listen to it to the end. I have seen a Dean read an address in minute handwriting. He, being near-sighted, had to hold the pages close to his face. All the auditors could see was a bundle of white leaves and a bald head behind it, and the voice issuing from the rear of the pages was so indistinct and cadenceless that the words were all swallowed by the persons three rows before him, for they reached no further, and the audience at the back had to seek from those in front a second-hand report of what was supposed to have been said, of which no one was sure.

At the British Association I have seen a president read his inaugural address from long proof slips, just as the printer sent them. The president had to ask the secretary for his address, of which the secretary had only one copy—and that he could not find when wanted. Nothing could be more humiliating to president or audience than to read to, or to be read to, from printers' slips, which take all dignity out of the occasion, even if the reading was fairly spoken. But the president, being a professor, despised emphasis, inflection, or passion, as unphilosophical. The audience had a bad time of it, and applauded only when the address ended, and because it had ended. Philosophers might be expected to do these things better.

University reading is, as a rule, more insipid than clerical. The professor's object is to say in a paper (when he reads one) exactly what ought to be known. Students bent upon knowledge, with their minds already occupied with the subject submitted to them, and seeking information important to them—bend a willing ear, and are grateful for the ideas they want, and heed not, and care not, how colorless and tame-toned are the words spoken. Many professors, as I have seen, when they come before the public as preachers or scientists, will deliver their message in the most spiritless manner to an audience ignorant alike of its matter and its moment, whom they inspire not only with dislike but with resentment against speaker and subject.

The pulpit or platform orator who cares only for the judgment of the few, whose attainments give weight to their opinions, may read anyhow, provided he has ideas which the few covet. But if he calls together a miscellaneous audience, or connives at their being assembled, and does not intend to entertain or instruct them, he ought to be liable to indictment for obtaining attention under false pretenses. Some preachers affect not to read their sermons; but they do it, and their congregations know it. If a man cannot speak—in pulpit or on platform—from notes of the kind described in the last chapter, he had better read openly; and if done properly it will be effective.

The method is this. After writing out the speech or discourse, twice or thrice if necessary, read it aloud to someone whom you wish to interest in it. A reader gets thereby quite a new idea of what he has written. If any part is not understood by the listener, that part must be made clear. If any part or phrase strikes the listener as not being in good taste, reconsider it. One object in reading the discourse aloud is to note the time it takes to read it with audibility. If it occupies an hour it should be abridged until it can be easily read in three-quarters of an hour. That allows one quarter for the expansion of public reading, which will be slower, fuller in tone, and allow for pauses between new paragraphs. No discourse, as a rule, should exceed one hour.

When the whole statement intended to be made is satisfactory as to terms and length, it should be copied out on large note-sized paper, in a handwriting sufficiently bold to be easily read at a distance from the eye. The initial capital letters should be print capitals, so as to mark clearly the beginning of a new sentence. Up strokes and down strokes should be short, so that one line does not hang down into another, nor project above, causing confusion or entanglement of words. The paper used should be somewhat stiff, so that one page can be easily raised by itself. The writing should be on one side only The speaker or preacher should write out the copy himself. He will know better the words he himself has formed, and become so familiar with the text as to know it almost by heart. Finally, he should underline with a colored pencil such words or sentences on which the emphasis is to fall, just as the acting copy of a play is underscored. Then the speech is ready to be read. When the time comes to deliver it, the pages should be held in one hand, and by a careless movement let the auditors perceive that nothing is written at the back, and as each page is read it should be laid on a table at hand, so that the hearers may know that as the pages decrease the end of their detention draweth nigh. Now, a speech so prepared can be held at a distance from the reader. He will know at a glance the contents of the page, and the part marked for emphasis will tell him the important words. On reading the beginning of a sentence he will often know the rest, and feel himself free to look the audience in the face and use such gestures as the sentiment suggests. Additions or explanations—amplifications of phrases he may find needful, and illustrations will come into his mind—for which he has left himself time. By holding his thumb at the sentence where he commenced to interpolate, he can come back instantly to the place, and thus acquire a freedom and spontaneity of delivery more effective than ordinary extempore speeches, which lack vigor, relevance and brightness.

The Rev. Mr. Bellew, though a sonorous and eloquent preacher, delighted his congregation more by reading sermons than by preaching them. Mr. J. S. Laurie, in his Training of Teachers, says, 'Reading aloud, in any sense other than the mere naming of vocables, is an act of intelligence, and an act requiring an even higher intelligence as the subject-matter of what is read grows in subtlety and complexity. Even with the help of more disciplined and better-informed minds, very few of the middle and upper classes can read in a style that satisfies at once the understanding and the ear of a cultivated listener. Probably no accomplishment is more conclusive evidence that a boy has been educated than the power of reading well.' Good reading requires good judgment and good preparation, as oratory does. This means trouble, and trouble is not taken save by those whose aim is excellence. I remember a writer saying, 'I once spent the night with a clergyman, an old friend, who had the habit of reading his sermons. I asked him why he did so. He went on to give me the reasons, and became animated. "Well," said I, "I am tired to-night, but I have been very much interested in what you said. Nevertheless, if you had read your remarks I should have gone to sleep.'" That was because the rector was a mere conventional reader. Had he read his sermons as he would read a letter to his family giving them information of a legacy, each bequest to each person would be read with congratulatory emphasis, and none would go to sleep.

French and American audiences will accept written speeches. The French read like an oration. The speeches which stirred all the world in the French Convention were written and read. Some Americans abuse the privilege of reading in the Legislative Chamber, making their speeches too long for any human purpose, and so reading them that nobody listens, or ought to listen to them. The French read papers and make their addresses often too long for lasting impression, but then they do read them with an almost superhuman animation.

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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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