The Art of Public Speaking
INFLUENCING BY DESCRIPTION
The groves of Eden vanish'd now so long, Live in description, and look green in song.
--ALEXANDER POPE, Windsor Forest.
The moment our discourse rises above the ground-line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or
exalted thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes,
will find that always a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every
thought, which furnishes the vestment of the thought.... This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of
experience with the present action of the mind. It is proper creation.
--RALPH WALDO EMERSON, Nature.
Like other valuable resources in public speaking, description loses its power when carried to an extreme.
Over-ornamentation makes the subject ridiculous. A dust-cloth is a very useful thing, but why embroider it?
Whether description shall be restrained within its proper and important limits, or be encouraged to run riot, is
the personal choice that comes before every speaker, for man's earliest literary tendency is to depict.
The Nature of Description
To describe is to call up a picture in the mind of the hearer. "In talking of description we naturally speak of
portraying, delineating, coloring, and all the devices of the picture painter. To describe is to visualize, hence
we must look at description as a pictorial process, whether the writer deals with material or with spiritual
If you were asked to describe the rapid-fire gun you might go about it in either of two ways: give a cold
technical account of its mechanism, in whole and in detail, or else describe it as a terrible engine of slaughter,
dwelling upon its effects rather than upon its structure.
The former of these processes is exposition, the latter is true description. Exposition deals more with the
general, while description must deal with the particular. Exposition elucidates ideas, description treats of
things. Exposition deals with the abstract, description with the concrete. Exposition is concerned with the
internal, description with the external. Exposition is enumerative, description literary. Exposition is
intellectual, description sensory. Exposition is impersonal, description personal.
If description is a visualizing process for the hearer, it is first of all such for the speaker--he cannot describe
what he has never seen, either physically or in fancy. It is this personal quality--this question of the personal
eye which sees the things later to be described--that makes description so interesting in public speech. Given a
speaker of personality, and we are interested in his personal view--his view adds to the natural interest of the
scene, and may even be the sole source of that interest to his auditors.
The seeing eye has been praised in an earlier chapter (on "Subject and Preparation") and the imagination will
be treated in a subsequent one (on "Riding the Winged Horse"), but here we must consider the picturing mind:
the mind that forms the double habit of seeing things clearly--for we see more with the mind than we do with
the physical eye--and then of re-imaging these things for the purpose of getting them before the minds' eyes of
the hearers. No habit is more useful than that of visualizing clearly the object, the scene, the situation, the
action, the person, about to be described. Unless that primary process is carried out clearly, the picture will be
blurred for the hearer-beholder.