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Of all the skills that are taught to us in our founding years at high school, public speaking is perhaps the most underrated one.
The idea of extolling words on the stage or let’s says before a group of people can be a frightening ordeal for many and likely so considering that this is one skill that we do not get enough exposure to hone in our elementary years.But however inscrutable it may seem, public speaking is an art, and like any other art, it can be learned and mastered.
A look at the history of public speaking would take you to its very trying roots, to a period when the humanity was discovering itself. A period that speaks for itself with a bitter candor, laden with enigmatic and scandalous reforms, political turmoil and bizarre ideas; the ancient Greece was a defining time and lots of its missionary distribution of knowledge and ideas came from mastering the art of speaking. It was an art which was taught in schools with arithmetic and language, with Aristotle, Plato and Socrates acting as its prime teachers, who bestowed in their students the new ideas and forms of oratory. When Aristotle was talking about rhetoric, what he really meant was using the means of persuasion in reference to any subject. He divided the “means of persuasion” into three parts, or three artistic proofs necessary to persuade others: logical reason (logos), human character (ethos), and emotional appeal (pathos). Logos is the presentation of logical consistency in reasons or arguments that support speaker’s talk, Ethos refers to the speaker’s credibility or trustworthiness and Pathos occurs when a speaker evokes particular emotion in the audience.
The addition of arrangement, invention, elocution, memory and delivery using nonverbal communication cues such as eye contact, gestures and tone of voice came with the onset of the Romans and it was in that period, the art of speaking reached its most golden epoch.
But it was only thousand years later, when Mark Antony first delivered his infamous speech in Blackfriars, before a crowd quite English in its ways, a Renaissance crowd used to the genius that was Shakespeare, that the world first beheld the sheer power that is oratory. Laden with rhetoric and sarcasm, Shakespeare’s Antony changed the course of the rebellion and made an entire mass revolt against the ideological hero that was Brutus. The play though came to an end with the butchering of a trapped sensibility as Brutus, but the journey of public speaking that only ever started. Shakespeare went on to use the classical rhetoric speaking with Portia and many of his other characters, and his followers Fletcher, Beaumont and Jonson too, though lacked his finesse and character continued to induce rhetorical speech in their plays. It was also during this time, that Francis Bacon, probably the most famous courtier of James I of England, was developing new ideas for oratory.
Bacon, a very pragmatic essayist believed that the journey to truth was paramount to the study and performance of communication. He asserted and even preached that reason and morality required speakers to have a high degree of accountability, making it an essential element in oration. His ideas were taken forward in the period of the Enlightenment with the revolutionary and constantly changing Europe adding their own form of political rhetoric in it.
In the modern times, public speaking has taken a different channel, now the speeches are not only confined to the boundaries of politics; they are used to put forward an idea, to deliver ones views on various issues and to be the change that we wish to see in the world.
The use of rhetoric is still very prominent but there has been a significant addition in the language of the spoken word. When the former American President John F. Kennedy gave his historic speech “Let us go forth to lead the land we love”, he was using alliterationto assert his dedication and zeal for the American public, Martin Luther King had mastered the art of antithesis where one deliberately contrasts two opposing ideas to create an impact when he gave his most ground breaking speech, “I have a dream”, a speech that in many ways brought the culmination of the hundred years of racial suffering and when Benjamin Franklin uttered is his famous quote , “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I will learn”, he was using the art of parallelismwhich involves using similar sentence structure in a sequence to draw the attention of the listening crowd.
The history has been made and refined with orators. The unprecedented legacies of Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mao, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and even Adolf Hitler are laden with their unforgettable speeches that changed the course of time, and brought a change that was never before predicted.
When on stage, remembering that you are here to put forward your idea, an idea you have full faith on is important. Surprisingly being confident about your content is the most crucial part and defining part as it gives a strong foundation to your oration and helps you a lot in remaining undaunted throughout the time period of your speech. The texture of your voice, the tilt of your body, the movement of your eyes and of course the gesture of your hands should be in accordance to what you are saying. Raise your eyebrows if being sarcastic, lower your voice if you plan on evoking emotions, make strong eye contact if accusing someone of their silence, be flat and pragmatic while sprouting facts but do it with elegance and lower your eyes while talking about remorse. It is important that all this be subtle, not overtly dramatic but deliberate enough to put a spell in the audience and make them reflect upon your words, to feel the emotions you want them to feel.
But at the end, all that public speaking requires is the zeal to speak what you want to. It doesn’t matter if someone is not abiding by the rules of oratory or following the different norms of rhetoric, it all comes down to the desire to speak. It doesn’t always require a mentor, but it does require passionand once one attain that, there is no greater joy than being on stage, no accolade grander than hearing the echoes of one’s own voice. It becomes a revered art and its practitioner a devoted artist.