The Art of Public Speaking
MAKING CONVERSATION EFFECTIVE
In conversation avoid the extremes of forwardness and reserve.
Conversation is the laboratory and workshop of the student.
--EMERSON, Essays: Circles.
The father of W.E. Gladstone considered conversation to be both an art and an accomplishment. Around the
dinner table in his home some topic of local or national interest, or some debated question, was constantly
being discussed. In this way a friendly rivalry for supremacy in conversation arose among the family, and an
incident observed in the street, an idea gleaned from a book, a deduction from personal experience, was
carefully stored as material for the family exchange. Thus his early years of practise in elegant conversation
prepared the younger Gladstone for his career as a leader and speaker.
There is a sense in which the ability to converse effectively is efficient public speaking, for our conversation
is often heard by many, and occasionally decisions of great moment hinge upon the tone and quality of what
we say in private.
Indeed, conversation in the aggregate probably wields more power than press and platform combined.
Socrates taught his great truths, not from public rostrums, but in personal converse. Men made pilgrimages to
Goethe's library and Coleridge's home to be charmed and instructed by their speech, and the culture of many
nations was immeasurably influenced by the thoughts that streamed out from those rich well-springs.
Most of the world-moving speeches are made in the course of conversation. Conferences of diplomats,
business-getting arguments, decisions by boards of directors, considerations of corporate policy, all of which
influence the political, mercantile and economic maps of the world, are usually the results of careful though
informal conversation, and the man whose opinions weigh in such crises is he who has first carefully
pondered the words of both antagonist and protagonist.
However important it may be to attain self-control in light social converse, or about the family table, it is
undeniably vital to have oneself perfectly in hand while taking part in a momentous conference. Then the
hints that we have given on poise, alertness, precision of word, clearness of statement, and force of utterance,
with respect to public speech, are equally applicable to conversation.
The form of nervous egotism--for it is both--that suddenly ends in flusters just when the vital words need to be
uttered, is the sign of coming defeat, for a conversation is often a contest. If you feel this tendency
embarrassing you, be sure to listen to Holmes's advice:
And when you stick on conversational burs, Don't strew your pathway with those dreadful urs.
Here bring your will into action, for your trouble is a wandering attention. You must force your mind to
persist along the chosen line of conversation and resolutely refuse to be diverted by any subject or happening
that may unexpectedly pop up to distract you. To fail here is to lose effectiveness utterly.
Concentration is the keynote of conversational charm and efficiency. The haphazard habit of expression that
uses bird-shot when a bullet is needed insures missing the game, for diplomacy of all sorts rests upon the
precise application of precise words, particularly--if one may paraphrase Tallyrand--in those crises when