What most public speaking advice overlooks is the importance of being a better speaker, of being in effect a good person.
And yet history and even, sadly, contemporary politics are filled with examples of the damage done by bad people who give powerful, even mesmerizing speeches.
By bad people I don’t necessarily mean that they’re evil people, although some of them are/were. (Is there any better way to describe Hitler, one of the most powerful speakers of the 20th century?)
Bad people may or may not be well meaning and sincere, but they are
- bigoted, self-serving or willfully misinformed,
- willing to skew the truth to advance their agenda, to pander to an audience’s less honorable instincts, or to shill for a dubious idea, or
- lacking in discernment, compassion, or a sense of justice.
Cicero, ancient Rome’s greatest orator, knew only too well the harm that unprincipled, but effective speakers cause. Toward the end of his career he wrote De Oratore, the distillation of his experience.
Cicero wrote De Oratore to describe the ideal orator and imagine him as a moral guide of the state. Cicero understood that the power of persuasion—the ability to verbally manipulate opinion in crucial political decisions—was a key issue. The power of words in the hands of a man without scruples or principles would endanger the whole community. (Wikipedia)
To be a better speaker requires us not just to improve our public speaking skills and strategies.
Being a better speaker requires us, first, to be good people, to be the kind of people who
- Read well and widely.
- Listen respectfully, especially to those with whom we disagree.
- Question both our own core beliefs and the inherited wisdom of our culture.
- Care about other people’s well-being.
- Do good works.
- Are honest in our daily affairs and faithful to our commitments.
- Contribute some small measure of beauty or laughter to the world.
What would you add to my list?