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The Art of Public Speaking

CHAPTER XV
82
they are not convincing, because they appear to be--what they have a doubtful right to be in reality--studied.
Have you ever seen a speaker use such grotesque gesticulations that you were fascinated by their frenzy of
oddity, but could not follow his thought? Do not smother ideas with gymnastics. Savonarola would rush down
from the high pulpit among the congregation in the duomo at Florence and carry the fire of conviction to his
hearers; Billy Sunday slides to base on the platform carpet in dramatizing one of his baseball illustrations. Yet
in both instances the message has somehow stood out bigger than the gesture--it is chiefly in calm
afterthought that men have remembered the form of dramatic expression. When Sir Henry Irving made his
famous exit as "Shylock" the last thing the audience saw was his pallid, avaricious hand extended skinny and
claw-like against the background. At the time, every one was overwhelmed by the tremendous typical quality
of this gesture; now, we have time to think of its art, and discuss its realistic power.
Only when gesture is subordinated to the absorbing importance of the idea--a spontaneous, living expression
of living truth--is it justifiable at all; and when it is remembered for itself--as a piece of unusual physical
energy or as a poem of grace--it is a dead failure as dramatic expression. There is a place for a unique style of
walking--it is the circus or the cake-walk; there is a place for surprisingly rhythmical evolutions of arms and
legs--it is on the dance floor or the stage. Don't let your agility and grace put your thoughts out of business.
One of the present writers took his first lessons in gesture from a certain college president who knew far more
about what had happened at the Diet of Worms than he did about how to express himself in action. His
instructions were to start the movement on a certain word, continue it on a precise curve, and unfold the
fingers at the conclusion, ending with the forefinger--just so. Plenty, and more than plenty, has been published
on this subject, giving just such silly directions. Gesture is a thing of mentality and feeling--not a matter of
geometry. Remember, whenever a pair of shoes, a method of pronunciation, or a gesture calls attention to
itself, it is bad. When you have made really good gestures in a good speech your hearers will not go away
saying, "What beautiful gestures he made!" but they will say, "I'll vote for that measure." "He is right--I
believe in that."
Gestures Should Be Born of the Moment
The best actors and public speakers rarely know in advance what gestures they are going to make. They make
one gesture on certain words tonight, and none at all tomorrow night at the same point--their various moods
and interpretations govern their gestures. It is all a matter of impulse and intelligent feeling with them--don't
overlook that word intelligent. Nature does not always provide the same kind of sunsets or snow flakes, and
the movements of a good speaker vary almost as much as the creations of nature.
Now all this is not to say that you must not take some thought for your gestures. If that were meant, why this
chapter? When the sergeant despairingly besought the recruit in the awkward squad to step out and look at
himself, he gave splendid advice--and worthy of personal application. Particularly while you are in the
learning days of public speaking you must learn to criticise your own gestures. Recall them--see where they
were useless, crude, awkward, what not, and do better next time. There is a vast deal of difference between
being conscious of self and being self-conscious.
It will require your nice discrimination in order to cultivate spontaneous gestures and yet give due attention to
practise. While you depend upon the moment it is vital to remember that only a dramatic genius can
effectively accomplish such feats as we have related of Whitefield, Savonarola, and others: and doubtless the
first time they were used they came in a burst of spontaneous feeling, yet Whitefield declared that not until he
had delivered a sermon forty times was its delivery perfected. What spontaneity initiates let practise complete.
Every effective speaker and every vivid actor has observed, considered and practised gesture until his
dramatic actions are a sub-conscious possession, just like his ability to pronounce correctly without especially
concentrating his thought. Every able platform man has possessed himself of a dozen ways in which he might
depict in gesture any given emotion; in fact, the means for such expression are endless--and this is precisely
why it is both useless and harmful to make a chart of gestures and enforce them as the ideals of what may be
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