Demosthenes

Public speaking expert is a title that carries tremendous weight.  Demosthenes, public speaking expert of the 4th century BC, is one of the legendary Greek orators. Some of his most famous (and my favorite) addresses of his relate to his opposition to King Phillip II of Macedon. Although he passed away in 322 BC, Demosthenes is relevant to 21st century orators because of his dedication to practice and preparation.

Demosthenes’ dream was to be a great orator, but he had speech impediments.  He was ridiculed early and often for his deficiencies, but he never quit.   Here are just a few of the things he is rumored to have done to attain his goal:

Corrected his defective elocution by speaking with pebbles in his mouth.

Prepared himself to overcome noise by speaking in stormy weather on the seashore.

Recited verses while running to improve his breathing and cadence.

Passed two or three months in an underground cave, practicing his oratory. While there, he would shave half of his head to prevent himself from leaving the cave.

Hung a sword just above shoulder level, so that when his shoulder rose to create an awkward physical posture, the sword would prick him, triggering him to lower it.

While I would never advocate living in a cave or practicing with pebbles in your mouth to improve oratorical skill, there are modern equivalents of Demosthenes’ methods that everyone can use to improve.  Here are a few:

1) Write it Out – I always write out every speech I will deliver.  I then edit it and re-write it.  I do this four of five times. It is at this point that I begin the process of shortening the speech to bullet points, then shortening the bullet points until there is nothing left to eliminate. All that’s left are key words and key phrases. You don’t have to confine yourself in a cave to do this! Find a quiet place and just write.

2) Videotape yourself – I have a studio that I use, although before I used my garage.  Set up a video camera, adjust the settings, and begin.  This is an extremely effective way to get a feel for not only messaging and verbal delivery, but also paralanguage, expressions, and gestures. No need for a hanging sword.

3) Record Your Voice – I often complement the use of a video camera with the use of a Dictaphone so that I can focus entirely on my verbal delivery. This way, you can improve your verbal fluency without putting pebbles in your mouth.

4) Practice in Front of People – In addition to solitary preparation, it’s essential to practice in front of an actual person. My wife is my biggest fan and sharpest critic.  For nine years I have practiced every speech or presentation I have ever delivered in front of her multiple times, and she always gives me very astute commentary.  This works with co-workers, siblings, and anyone else who you trust and whose opinion you respect.

5) Exercise and Deliver – This is a Demosthenes method that still works to this day.   I often run a few 100-yard sprints, and then immediately retreat to my garage, winded, to practice and get my posture and breathing right (breathing from the diaphragm.)  You do not have to run sprints – any exercise that gets your heart rate up and adrenaline pumping can subtly mimic what your body feels when beginning an address.

What lengths would you go to in order to become a master orator, or to take your public speaking to the next level? The point of highlighting Demosthenes in this post is not to drive one to try anything potentially dangerous to improve presentation skills; it’s to drive home the point that the majority of those who are considered to be public speaking experts worked very, very hard to get there.

Remember that the next time a presentation is coming up and the urge to just “wing it” arrives.

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