“Rhetoric is as noble an art as exists on this planet; rhetoric is the art of clothing in words and in gestures and in presentation to a group the ideas that you have in the most effective way possible”.
Winston Churchill once said, “There is nothing like oratory,” and to paraphrase him, he said, “It is a skill that can turn a commoner into a king.” I believe that’s true; I believe that public speaking is a skill that everyone should try to acquire. We’re going to have 12 guest lecturers in the course of our time together: I want to share this podium with the likes of Demosthenes of Athens, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and many others. They will each be featured in a speech or set of speeches that made a difference to the world and to them, but more important, speeches that make a point about public speaking. I hope that you will end this course with a greater understanding of what makes good public speaking, a greater appreciation of what an important part of your life public speaking can become, and greater incentive to tackle the challenge of getting over your obstacles and starting to speak in public yourself.
The genius of rhetoric that I would like to have lead us into this world of speechmaking is Demosthenes of Athens, who lived in the 5th century B. C. Demosthenes was a genius who, at a time when Athens’s fortunes were sinking, tried to revive his city’s power through his own speeches. But nobody would have guessed from looking at him as a boy that it could have happened. Demosthenes was born to a rich family, but his father died when he was very small. He was brought up by the womenfolk in the family, outside the public sphere. He did not go to the gymnasium with the other boys; he did not toughen himself up. He grew up alone with books. One of his books was The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, another
Athenian. Demosthenes had a copy that he read eight times; he memorized lots of it, and what he was memorizing in many cases were speeches.
Demosthenes’s first step was to try to become a good speaker by opening up scrolls, reading somebody else’s speech, and committing it to memory; because in Athens, if you were speaking in a law court of the public Assembly, you had to speak from memory. Demosthenes soon learned that he had some serious problems to overcome: Physically, he was weak; he walked around stooped-shouldered with a frown all the time. He had a speech impediment; we don’t know exactly what, but it may have been a lisp. People laughed at him when he spoke as a boy, and he knew he was going to have to get over that if he intended to have a career as a public speaker as a man.
When Demosthenes turned 18, he discovered that his guardians had embezzled all of his inheritance from his father. The only way that he would be able to get it back was to go to court, where he would have to speak for himself. So he went down to the seashore where he could be completely alone and began a course of selfimprovement to make him a man that people would listen to in a court of law. He used a little prop, a little aid, that he invented himself as a method for improving elocution: a pebble.
To get over his speech impediment, he would put a pebble in his mouth, and he would then speak, working to get his tongue and to get his palate and to get his lips around that pebble so that he could be understood even with that stone in his mouth.