Tips from Two of History’s Greatest Public Speakers

After Jesus Christ, the ancient Roman orator Cicero was possibly the most influential speaker in history, shaping the style of writers and speakers from the time of Julius Caesar to this day. Cicero in turn modeled himself after the Greek orator Demosthenes, whom he called “the perfect orator.” In his guide to public speaking, De Oratore (On the Orator), Cicero concurred with Demosthenes that delivery (Latin actio) was the most important key to public speaking success:

Delivery, I say, has the sole and supreme power in oratory; without it, a speaker of the highest mental capacity can be held in no esteem; while one of moderate abilities, with this qualification, may surpass even those of the highest talent. To this Demosthenes is said to have assigned the first place, when he was asked what was the chief requisite in eloquence; to this the second, and to this the third.

–Cicero, De Oratore 3.213

Demosthenes

Demosthenes

Now by putting such stress on delivery, neither Demosthenes nor Cicero implied that delivery was the only key to successful speaking. Cicero actually outlined a five-step process for preparing a speech, which included analyzing, organizing, writing, and memorizing the presentation. Delivery was the last step in this process. But because it was the last step, delivery held the key to making the other steps work. Without good delivery, you could have a brilliant, logical, eloquent, well-rehearsed speech fall on deaf ears.

Why is delivery so important? You can see why if you imagine Darth Vader’s lines being voiced by Elmer Fudd instead of James Earl Jones. “Wuke, I am your father. Come join me and we can hunt wabbits together. Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh.” Not quite the same effect, huh?

What goes into good delivery? Cicero identified the biggest factor as vocal variation, followed by body language, especially eye movements.

Cicero

Cicero

Discussing vocal variation, Cicero observed that any speaker’s voice has a range centered around a “middle key” from which their pitch can rise or fall to extremes. The trick to effective vocal variation is learning to vary your pitch in time with the emotional rhythms of your speech. A speaker with poor delivery tends to stick to one pitch or to use the extreme ranges of their voice at the wrong times. Examples of these mistakes would be someone who always speaks in a monotone or someone who shouts every word of their speech. Cicero recommended learning to scale your tone up and down from your vocal middle key to highlight different parts of your speech.

With respect to body language, Cicero taught that eye movements were most important. How you gaze, where you look, and how quickly your eyes move are elements of eye language that affect your impact.

Cicero considered eye movements as the most important factor in determining facial expressions. He also regarded other aspects of facial expressions as important, but he observed that other parts of the face don’t have as much ability to change expression as the eyes.

Cicero also emphasized the importance of gestures, especially hand movements. He stressed that hand movements should convey the general emotional meaning of a whole passage in a speech instead of attempting to mimic individual words. He recommended extending the arm for dramatic effect. He reserved stamping the feet only for very emphatic occasions at the end or commencement of a speech.

Cicero offered many other timeless tips for speakers. For more of his public speaking tips, read his classic book De Oratore.

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